(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
The fate of Moshe Katsav's presidency hung on a few votes Wednesday, as Knesset members weighed whether to accept the president's request for a temporary suspension.
It was a dramatic day in the Knesset, as MKs led by Yoram Marciano (Labor) and Zehava Gal-On (Meretz) collected 30 signatures on a petition demanding that the Knesset House Committee begin proceedings to remove Katsav from office in light of Attorney-General Menahem Mazuz's decision Tuesday to indict Katsav on rape charges.
Katsav, however, beat the MKs to the House Committee, and managed to file his own request for a temporary suspension first. Therefore, the committee will vote Thursday morning on Katsav's request before it discusses a vote on the MKs' petition.
The chief opposition to Katsav's request came from MKs who believe that the move is meant to grant the president more time in office. "The request for a temporary suspension is a slap in the face to the Knesset," said Gal-On. "I call on all MKs not to accept this poor joke and instead vote - once and for all - to remove this man from the office he should have vacated long ago."
On Wednesday night, the committee appeared nearly tied on how to vote on Katsav's request. A poll taken by The Jerusalem Post showed that 12 MKs planned to vote for Katsav's proposal and nine planned to vote against. Two Shas MKs said they would consult the party's spiritual leader, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, on how to vote, while two more MKs from the Likud had not yet announced how they would vote. Together, those four MKs will determine whether Katsav receives his temporary suspension.
While Katsav's letter did not propose a length for his suspension, House Committee chairwoman Ruhama Avraham (Kadima) said the committee would set a period of three months.
If the committee votes against a temporary suspension, Avraham may let it proceed with a vote on the MKs' petition. According to the Knesset bylaws, at least three-fourths - or 19 of the 25 MKs - must vote in favor of the petition in order for it to pass. The vote would then move to the plenum, which would again need a three-fourths majority for the Knesset to force Katsav's resignation.
As of Wednesday night, it did not appear that there was a three-fourths majority in the committee. Two MKs from the United Torah Judaism and two Israel Beiteinu MKs announced that they opposed the petition, since it "stepped on the toes of the justice system."
In addition, one Gil MK and possibly one Likud MK said that they were against forcing Katsav to resign. Together, the six MKs would prevent the petition from passing, despite claims from Gal-On that there were already more than 80 MKs in the plenum who would force Katsav to resign.
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert added his voice Wednesday night to the growing calls for Katsav's resignation. Earlier, cabinet ministers Tzipi Livni (Kadima), Avi Dichter (Kadima), Isaac Herzog (Labor), and Yuli Tamir (Labor) called for Katsav's resignation.
Tamir, who serves as education minister, also said that she was mulling whether to order that pictures of the president be removed from public school walls.
"As long as the president is suspended, having his pictures hanging at every school is unrealistic. The ministry is currently debating the issue," she said.