A soap opera in our own backyard

There's no need to turn on the television. The chain of events unfolding around Beit Hanassi makes for far juicier entertainment than many of the soap operas on our small screens. Out of nowhere on Saturday night came the story from Channel 2 political commentator Amnon Abramovitch of alleged extortion against Israel's number one citizen, who he claimed was allegedly being threatened and blackmailed for alleged sexual misconduct. The main plot line is that President Moshe Katsav last Wednesday summoned Attorney-General Menahem Mazuz to tell him that a former Beit Hanassi employee was blackmailing him with what he declared to be a baseless claim of sexual harassment and forced indecent acts. The employee is said to be a member of the Beit Hanassi secretarial staff, who left approximately a year ago after her relations with the president began to deteriorate. What the nature of those relations were is not exactly clear. The woman ("O.R.") and her legal representative say that no charges have been filed against the president. Likewise, Beit Hanassi says that no charges have been filed by the president. However, "O.R." has also indicated that she may speak out when she decides the time is right. This could well mean that she is prepared to wait until the president completes his term of office at the end of July, 2007. Meanwhile, rumors have now surfaced of a second woman, who might also make allegations of sexual harassment. Some of the people close to Katsav believe that the sexual harassment story has been circulated to torpedo his chances of returning to political life and possibly becoming the next prime minister. Similar thoughts were expressed regarding the recent brouhaha over the president's refusal to call Reform rabbis by their honorifics, when addressing them in Hebrew. That row also brought into question whether Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau, a former chief rabbi of Israel, the current chief rabbi of Tel Aviv and a leading candidate to succeed Katsav as president, could in fact serve in the post if he would not recognize Reform and Conservative Jews, especially the converts in those streams of Judaism, and if he would not shake hands with women. Getting back to the alleged sexual misconduct, Beit Hanassi spokeswoman Hagit Cohen initially issued a statement in which she said that the president's meeting with Mazuz was just one of the regular meetings that they have from time to time. However, Mazuz put a spoke in that wheel by revealing on Sunday that he had indeed been summoned to Beit Hanassi, where the president told him of developments related to a particular employee, and said that he had the evidence, including recordings, to back up his version of events. The complaint, according to Mazuz, was not of a criminal nature. Before Mazuz took his leave, Katsav gave him a letter outlining the points that had been raised in their conversation. After scrutinizing the letter and consulting with people in his office, Mazuz sent a letter of his own to Katsav, asking for the documented material. As of Sunday night, Mazuz was still waiting. Early on Sunday morning, before Mazuz made his revelation, Israel Radio's legal commentator Moshe Negbi said that even though complaints had not been filed by either side, it was imperative that the matter be investigated and settled as soon as possible because it cast a terrible blot on the presidency. Later, after Mazuz had made his statement, Gabi Gazit, a current affairs anchor on Israel Radio, noted the discrepancies between what Mazuz was saying and what was coming forth from Beit Hanassi, and wondered whether the matter would have ever come to light if Abramovitch had not decided to make it public. Gazit also invited the president or one of his representatives to make a statement on his show. The offer was not taken up, and throughout the morning, reporters from various media were frustrated in their attempts to make contact with the Beit Hanassi spokeswoman. However by the afternoon she was answering the phone and tersely sticking to the original Beit Hanassi statement. On Sunday evening, the Movement for Quality Government demanded that Mazuz give the case top priority and if necessary, mount an investigation into criminal wrongdoing. While the rumor mill in and around Beit Hanassi is buzzing with speculation, it is hard to reconcile allegations of sexual harassment with the fact that both the president and everyone who works at Beit Hanassi knows the extent to which the building is bugged and monitored. Katsav's wife, incidentally, has an office just across the corridor from his, literally less than 30 seconds away. Outside the building, the president is constantly shadowed by bodyguards and accompanied by several members of his senior staff. The whole truth in this story may never come to light. There are already too many details that don't gel. That, of course, only adds to the drama and the mystery of it all.