Analyze this: Why Katsav is willing to chance a trial

Presidency may be only role for which he'll be remembered.

Katsav 248.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
Katsav 248.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
For Israel's 60th anniversary, President Shimon Peres is planning a grand celebration next month with an international conference that will bring a glittering array of world leaders and celebrities here. His predecessor is also preparing a gala event for the coming year, one that is likely to grab even more headlines - the spectacle of a former president of Israel standing trial for sex crimes committed throughout his political career, including within the walls of Beit Hanassi. Moshe Katsav's decision to reject the plea bargain offered him by the State Prosecutor's Office and take his chances in going to trial on charges that he sexually harassed and assaulted at least one woman who worked in his employ - and possibly more - is certainly his right as a citizen entitled to face, and try to refute, his accusers in a court of law. Even a defendant who has signed off on a plea bargain agreement confessing, at least in part, to some of the charges against him, enjoys the legal privilege of trying to attain a full acquittal before a final sentence is delivered. But whether Katsav eventually emerges with a verdict of either guilty or innocent, the nation he so recently served as official head of state can only emerge as a loser in these proceedings. While Israel is no stranger to bad publicity abroad, an extended trial of its former president featuring testimony filled with the type of salacious details that have already dribbled out into the local media during the past 18 months, will certainly add a new unfortunate wrinkle to the unflattering media coverage this country regularly receives. Though it may provide small consolation, at least Israel need not claim any unique status as regards public exposure of sexual misbehavior at the highest political levels; all one needs to do is recall the headlines out of Washington exactly a decade ago or those emanating from the New York governor's office even more recently. Still, a Katsav trial will be a sordid and depressing affair - and provide the likes of Russian President Vladimir Putin additional off-color material with which to needle Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. But in truth this nation has more far serious problems. The one who really stands to lose here - far more than the livelihood and reputation he has already forfeited - is Katsav. Attorney-General Menahem Mazuz has already indicated he is likely to indict the ex-president on charges more serious than those he was willing to accept in a plea bargains, charges that unquestionably will carry with them some amount of jail time as part of their sentence. Perhaps Katsav simply cannot imagine that an Israeli judge would send a former head of state behind bars, even if found guilty of the crimes of which he is accused. Unfortunately, having already lost the power of pardon that constitutes the one significant political privilege of his former office, Katsav is taking a significant gamble with his freedom. Thus, the most pertinent question at this stage of this affair is: Why he would take this risk? Clearly Katsav believes he has a reasonable chance at earning full acquittal - an opinion that is presumably shared by the prominent and costly legal talent currently representing him. Since this category of crimes often boils down to evidence almost entirely dependent on uncorroborated testimony, one can certainly not dismiss the possibility that Katsav will fare better in an official court than he has so far done in the court of public opinion. What's more, he will enter with the advantage of having already maneuvered - intentionally or unintentionally - the state prosecution into a situation of having previously dismissed some of the more serious accusations and damning testimony against him to arrive at a plea bargain agreement. No doubt these factors have influenced Katsav's cost-benefit analysis in deciding to go before a judge - as was also the cost of losing the benefits of a hefty state pension worth hundreds of thousands of shekels, if he were to have signed off a plea bargain agreement in which he admitted to having committed "crimes of moral turpitude." Beyond that, there are circumstances connected with Katsav's professional background prior to attaining the presidency that may well have lent him particular motivation in not leaving public life with the admission of having committed indecent acts. Who was Moshe Katsav before he took up residency at Beit Hanassi in 2000? If you ask many Israelis, they are likely to remember not much more other than he served as tourism minister in the 1990s. He began his political career in 1969 as the mayor of Kiryat Malachi, and became one of a number of young development town mayors and local council heads of Sephardi origin recruited onto the Likud's Knesset list in the following years. Some of this group would eventually vault upwards into senior cabinet positions, among them David Levy and Meir Sheetrit. Not Katsav, though, who remained a party middle-bencher whose career was already on a downward slope when he was nominated for president. In other words, the presidency was the sole high point on Katsav's resume, the only role for which he was likely to be remembered - which may well account for his willingness to gamble so much now, if there is even a slim chance of lightening the dark cloud under which he was forced to leave office. Katsav's predecessor, Ezer Weizmann, also left Beit Hanassi in the shadow of scandal. But the former Israel Air Force hero and defense minister could at least do so secure in the knowledge that he would still go down in history remembered far more for the formidable achievements he attained before becoming president than for the circumstances in which he left the office. Not so Katsav; his career was made memorable only by the presidency, and his presidency only by the sex scandal that ended it. In his eyes, this must be a fight not only for his good name, but his legacy (such as it is). This then, provides us with the most important lesson the state has learned from this mess, at least as regards to the dignity of the office involved. From the time of Chaim Weizmann, up until Katsav's selection by the Knesset, and now again with Peres, the presidency was seen as the capstone of a storied career, rather than an advancement of it. Certainly in this case, how much better it would have been if Katsav's resignation had been seen by him as an endurable disgrace rather than an unendurable embarrassment - which increasingly it will seem for all of us now. [email protected]