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President Moshe Katsav announced Sunday night that he would appear at the swearing-in ceremony for Chief Justice Dorit Benish, only if the Knesset rejected his request to be suspended from his position for two hours.
Earlier in the day, Katsav filed the official request to the Knesset House Committee, which will vote this week on whether the president should receive the two-hour leave. If Katsav does not take part in the ceremony, Knesset Speaker Dalia Itzik will replace him.
The committee can only vote on Katsav's request as is, although many MKs on that committee have said that they believe the suspension should be much longer.
Over recent weeks, police have been probing claims by Katsav that one of his former employees was attempting to blackmail him, and contradictory claims by the employee, known as A., that the president engaged in sexual contact with her while she worked at Beit Hanassi.
"A president who is suspected of such serious and shameful violations as sexual offense, cannot ask for a two-hour suspension. The president cannot issue us an ultimatum like this," said MK Zahava Gal-On (Meretz). "The House Committee must open impeachment proceedings."
Justice Minister Meir Sheetrit described the situation as "convoluted," and added that Katsav had offered to remove himself from the swearing in ceremony, but the Knesset House Committee had "complicated the issue."
It remains unclear how the Knesset House Committee will vote on the issue as more than half the committee members are on vacation and it has not yet been announced who will represent them in the committee.
Knesset legal adviser Nurit Elstein stressed that the House Committee is not authorized to interfere with Katsav's request, but only to approve or reject it. Elstein told the president that he has the right to decide for what period of time he will resign his duties.
According to the law, the president is to be replaced by the speaker of the Knesset if he is abroad or prevented by illness from fulfilling any obligation of the office.
For now, Katsav does not intend to travel nor does he plan to fake an illness. However, he can ask the House Committee to approve a temporary suspension. The law states that Katsav can request to recuse himself for up to three months, "but two hours is a joke," Aviad Hacohen, dean of Sha'arei Hamishpat Law College and senior lecturer in constitutional law told The Jerusalem Post.
According to Hacohen, the key point at issue is the time factor. The House Committee can accept Katsav's request for a two-hour suspension or it can lay down conditions, but the law does not specify periods of suspension, other than the three-month limit.
David Liba'i, an expert in constitutional law, indicated in interviews on Sunday that if the Knesset did not permit Katsav to recuse himself from the swearing-in, he would attend, but he also pointed out that the president, not the House Committee, would stipulate the time limit.
Earlier Sunday, Knesset Ethics Committee chairman Haim Oron (Meretz) said that Katsav was forcing the Knesset to impeach him. According to Oron, Katsav should recuse himself until Attorney-General Menahem Mazuz decides whether there is sufficient cause for an indictment.
Meanwhile, Katsav on Sunday absented himself from another event, the changing of the guard at the Council for a Beautiful Israel, which was founded by Aura Herzog in 1968. Herzog has led the organization ever since, and recently decided to step down.
Herzog is the widow of Chaim Herzog, the country's sixth president. Katsav and his wife Gila were to have attended the dedication on Sunday evening of a CBI facility. Beit Hanassi spokeswoman Hagit Cohen said that Katsav had too many things to do and that he also had to prepare for the state visit of Polish President Lech Kaczynski, for whom he is hosting an official reception at Beit Hanassi on Monday morning and a state dinner on Monday night.
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