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For most of its 58 years the Israeli presidency was mainly about laying cornerstones, cutting ribbons, visiting charities, accepting ambassadorial credentials and strolling alongside military bands with colorfully dressed kings and well-tailored presidents.
Now we have a presidency drowning in a scandal rife with sex, lies and audiotape, and offering painful reminders that a political Cinderella can instantaneously turn into a pumpkin. More deeply, this scandal emerges as yet another landmark in the rise of Israeli feminism; but most importantly, it signals the end of an era in Israeli politics, an era that took three decades to arrive and another three to wane, but end now will: the Likud era.
WHAT HAPPENED to Katsav seems clear. At 61, he is a product of the same generation as former defense minister Yitzhak Mordechai, a war hero whose illustrious career ended in disgrace with a sexual-abuse conviction. Both men failed to realize that "the bastards changed the rules," and that in a country where women lead, among others, the Supreme Court, the Knesset and two of the five largest banks, harassing female secretaries is no longer legitimate, and in fact can be dangerous to one's health. The days when a military legend like Moshe Dayan was excused, even admired, for his infidelities are long gone.
Not that Israel has become puritan; it has just become more intolerant toward the abuse of power in general, and of women in particular.
Still, there are deeper dimensions to the Katsav Affair, a Shakespearean tragedy whose protagonist was, until recently, the hero of a fairy-tale about a humbly-born immigrant who painstakingly inched his way over decades from the social periphery to the political holy of holies.
Born in Yazd, Iran, the soft-spoken Katsav arrived in Israel in 1951 at age six and lived with his family in a godforsaken shack closer to Gaza than to Tel Aviv. That place, eventually named Kiryat Malachi, became a dusty, working-class town with few opportunities to feel proud. One such moment came when a local youngster became the town's first graduate from the Hebrew University. His name was Moshe Katsav. Soon after that, at 24, Katsav became the town's mayor, the youngest Israel ever had.
With this kind of background, a visionary Menachem Begin catapulted Katsav to the Knesset, cleverly using him, along with other young talents from the Middle Eastern immigrations, to herald a social revolution that prized politicians who lacked the founding Israeli elite's means, secularism, socialism and Europeanism.
Yet the Katsav Affair, besides reflecting one individual's alleged failures of character and an entire generation's anachronistic chauvinism, also encapsulates the Likud Revolution's degeneration.
IN A COUNTRY alarmed by its leaders' performance during last summer's war, the Katsav allegations represent the same conceit and ineptitude that have plagued the entire political elite. Had the president been the moral beacon he was meant to be, he could have delivered the very independent judicial probe of the war that Ehud Olmert so efficiently prevented.
Back in fall '82, following the Christian massacre of Palestinians outside Beirut, then-president Yitzhak Navon used his moral authority to publicly demand, and summarily obtain, a judicial inquiry. Within several months, defense minister Ariel Sharon was fired and prime minister Begin resigned. It was the Israeli presidency's finest hour, the very inversion of where it now has arrived.
It was sad to hear Katsav portray himself this week as Alfred Dreyfus, and his pursuers as McCarthyites. Dreyfus made no bones about having been no spy. Katsav, besides having been no victim of any ethnic prejudice, only says, "I am innocent." To be Dreyfus, he must first of all say: "I did not have sex with any of my employees; not one of them, not once, whether forcefully or willingly." As of this writing (Wednesday afternoon), not once since the outbreak of this scandal in July has he said this much. And to be a victim of McCarthyism, we would need to believe that Attorney-General Menachem Mazuz has some ulterior motive in all this, personal, ideological, or both.
Faced with this, and with the fact that police say Katsav has been accused by 10 different women who worked for him in different parts of his career and therefore did not know of each other, we, the media, must follow in the footsteps of Nathan the Prophet, who after David allowed his hormones to go to his head, looked the mighty king in the eye and told him to his face: "You are the man!"
MIDDLE ISRAELIS appreciate your plight, Mr. President, but it's their job to also think of the women who say you abused them. Moreover, they must suspect there is a moral link between your alleged failings and what is currently being investigated at the Tax Authority; and to the prime minister's shenanigans, and the finance minister's shticks, and Shula Zaken's monkey business, and Tzahi Hanegbi's allegedly illegal appointments.
There are common denominators here: All of you are products of the Likud era (including those now in Kadima), and collectively you represent that party's abandonment of the ascetic Begin's and Shamir's idealism and its subsequent worship of patronage, greed and lust.
Collectively, you have made the prospect of a Labor restoration (led by Ami Ayalon and Avishay Braverman) more likely than it has ever been since its historic fall in 1977. The current Likud will have a hard time convincing voters that it is not the Likud that all of you fashioned with Ariel Sharon; thousands across the country now vomit at just the sound of the name Likud; and whether Ehud Olmert or Tzahi Hanegbi are now there, or in Kadima, is immaterial; to them you are all the same. To them, you were given an opportunity 30 years ago, by Menachem Begin, to enter the corridors of power and lead this country to new horizons. Instead, you used your offices to manipulate budgets, promote cronies, sideline professionals, prize hacks and abuse women.
No wonder all this ultimately ended up with soldiers getting killed and cities getting bombed.
There is only that much you can do for your country when you are so busy asking what you can do for yourself.
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