There was a certain degree of irony to President Moshe Katsav's speech Wednesday night in which he lashed out at the Israel Police for allegedly conspiring against him with the media in a "treacherous plot." The police force, after all, has been the negative focus of much media scrutiny of late, following a string of mishaps that began with the escape of convicted rapist Benny Sela two months ago. However, as a result of Katsav's emotional tirade against the men-in-blue, police officers around the country effectively shook off the "Keystone Kops" image they had garnered. Instead they have taken on a more controversial role - as heroes or villains of law enforcement - in the sensational drama that is about to pit them, in court, against Israel's No. 1 citizen. On Tuesday, Attorney-General Menahem Mazuz green-lighted Katsav's indictment on charges of rape, sexual misconduct, abuse of power and breach of trust. Katsav's televised response the following evening was to come out swinging. He accused the investigative team, led by Lt.- Cmdr. Yoav Segelovich, of "trampling all the parameters of justice in their pursuit to destroy my honor," contending that he and his legal team had presented the police and the State Attorney's Office with evidence in his defense, which they had maliciously chosen to ignore. Katsav even went so far as to accuse the police of intimidating witnesses who came forth in his defense - one a religious woman: "What do the police say to her? 'We are following you. We will get into your panties.' Threatening a haredi woman? This is a democratic state? Are these the standards we want in this country?" Internal Security Minister Avi Dichter was quick to respond, immediately issuing an official statement in which he categorically rejected the "slander" and demanded an apology from Katsav. "In every instance that the president felt that investigators acted in a manner during the investigation that harmed him or his reputation, he had the right, which is guaranteed to every citizen, to file a complaint that would have been followed up until it was resolved," Dichter said. THE TONE of Dichter's statement defending the police was distinctly different from the dissatisfaction he exhibited toward it after the Sela escape, which he described as "embarrassing... a humiliating failure." Indeed, Police Insp-Gen. Moshe Karadi owes thanks to last week's resignation of Chief of General Staff Dan Halutz and to this week's Katsav hubbub for diverting the public's attention from a second embarrassing prisoner escape. On Sunday afternoon, a Palestinian prisoner - during a cigarette break in a court parking lot - sprinted away from his police escorts. Despite his leg shackles, he managed to jump a fence and he dive into a waiting car. Courthouse security guards opened fire at him and his accomplice as they sped away in the stolen vehicle. Roadblocks and checkpoints sprang up around Petah Tikva, as large numbers of police rushed to the scene. The car was later found abandoned, but the 17-year-old Kalkilya resident - who was being held for entering Israel with falsified documentation - had vanished. This second major fiasco had Karadi and company collectively braced for a renewed media onslaught. The announcement of the Halutz resignation, however, overshadowed the otherwise big story - particularly as it came on the heels of another widely publicized case: the murder of 13-year-old Ta'ir Rada in Katzrin on December 13, and what was perceived to be the police's sloppy investigation of it. Though on January 18, prosecutors determined that the police had provided sufficient evidence with which to charge Roman Zadarov, even the Rada family still believe the real killer is on the loose. Not only had such cases made the police a laughing stock among the public - ridiculed ruthlessly on the country's leading political satire show, Eretz Nehederet - but even among the ranks, dissension, dissatisfaction and low morale were at an all-time high. And then came Katsav.