Analysis: A bitter saga culminates in yet another national rift

Mazuz-Katsav deal is final act of disunity.

katsav 88 (photo credit: )
katsav 88
(photo credit: )
The bottom line, at least for Attorney-General Menahem Mazuz, is that, today, President Moshe Katsav is resigning before the end of his term, after admitting to have committed serious crimes. But for a variety of reasons, he will get off with just a suspended prison sentence. These basic details are very similar to the circumstances under which Katsav's predecessor, Ezer Weizman, was forced to leave office. Weizman escaped, by the skin of his teeth, an indictment over an illegal million-dollar loan, also through agreeing to resign, and thanks to the statue of limitations and the efforts of a tenacious defense team. But the similarity ends there. Weizman, despite the cloud of financial impropriety, was allowed to resign with his dignity still largely intact. His long record as one of the architects of the Israel Air Force and defense minister during the Camp David negotiations with Egypt were not forgotten. He was given a place of honor at the inauguration ceremony of his successor - Moshe Katsav. How ironic that up until a year ago, Katsav's major achievement was seen as restoring a sense of decorum to the presidency after Weizman's stormy period. This time around, Katsav will not be on the invitations list for the swearing in, two weeks from now, of his successor, Shimon Peres. For Mazuz, this seems to be enough. Katsav, he said Thursday, has gone from being "Israel's No. 1 citizen to a convicted sex offender" and - even though brilliant 11th hour maneuvering by his attorney Avigdor Feldman saved Katsav from the ignominy of a public trial and the threat of a prison sentence - we should be satisfied with the result. Perhaps. But the fact remains that despite Mazuz's protestations, despite the insistence of Katsav's lawyers that he is still innocent and that he agreed to the plea bargain only to spare his family further suffering, and despite even the breathtaking press conference by "Aleph from Beit Hanassi," who for 45 minutes accused the president of being a serial rapist, this has been a good week for Katsav. For many Israelis, Katsav ceased to be president many months ago, when the allegations against him began leaking to the press. Others were not so sure. But when the draft indictment with the rape charge was published, some of them were convinced too. For them, the fact that he is resigning two weeks before the date that his term would have ended anyway is superfluous. The plea bargain hasn't changed that; it's a legalistic technicality. In their minds he is guilty even without being charged. But there are others - those who instinctively suspect the media-legal establishment partnership, who saw Katsav as an outsider who dared to grasp the highest prize and who were quite capable of believing that the "elites" had ganged up on the bright boy from the Kastina immigrant transit camp. For them the bottom line is very different: The attorneys and the journalists accused the president of multiple counts of rape, spoke of dozens of women lining up against him and promised that he would end up in jail. But in the end what he got was a drastically reduced indictment that included one charge of an indecent act and another of sexual harassment for kissing, hugging and touching one woman on her leg. For them, this is virtual vindication. For them, Katsav is not merely innocent, but a martyr. Katsav will no longer be a guest in the salons of "polite society," and for him this is a bitter punishment. He craved the approval of the intelligentsia and upper classes. Indeed, his plan was to use the presidency as a launching pad for a return to politics, the Likud leadership and the office of prime minister. Now, all he has to look forward to is retirement. But he has the consolation that from many other circles he won't be ostracized. On Thursday evening, less than 12 hours after signing the plea bargain, he was already guest of honor at an event in the Persian community. The Katsav case has not reached a satisfactory end, for either side. His accusers are infuriated not to get their day in court, from where, they are convinced, Katsav would have gone behind bars. His supporters are convinced that a terrible injustice has been done to him and that he has been robbed of a dignified exit from Beit Hanassi. Tragically the lines between the two sides are not drawn according to individual preference and experience, but along the social fractures dividing Israeli society. The left-wing, secular and Ashkenazi communities, who see themselves as the enlightened groups, generally tend to believe the accusers. Many of the religious, right-wing and Sephardim see Katsav as the real victim. Like every president before him, Katsav came to office promising to promote unity and bring together citizens of diverse backgrounds. Today, as he finally leaves office, he has given Israel yet another issue over which to be divided.