Knesset Speaker Dalia Itzik became Israel's acting president on Thursday after the Knesset House Committee granted President Moshe Katsav's request for a temporary suspension from office as he battles Attorney-General Menahem Mazuz's decision in principle to indict him for rape and other offenses. The committee's vote, after a tumultuous six-hour debate, was a narrow 13 in favor and 11 against, with the defeated dissenters pressing to reject Katsav's request for a suspension and instead move toward impeaching him.
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On Monday, at the next House Committee meeting, MKs led by Meretz's Zehava Gal-On will vote on whether to start a process intended ultimately to force Katsav to resign. To embark on this process, 19 of the 25 MKs would have to back it. As of Thursday night it was unclear whether there were sufficient votes for such a move. According to a Knesset legal adviser, the committee can force Katsav to resign even though he has now been suspended.
Katsav, who still formally retains the title, and salary, of president, also retains the right to reside at Beit Hanassi. He and his wife are spending the weekend in his hometown of Kiryat Malachi, but are expected to return to the President's Residence after Shabbat. Katsav will spend his time away from official duties working on his case, ahead of a forthcoming hearing at which his lawyers will have a final opportunity to persuade Mazuz to abandon the charges.
Katsav, who formally retains his immunity from prosecution, has said he will resign if Mazuz remains intent on indicting him after the hearing.
Itzik, the first woman to hold the position, said she will not seek to permanently succeed Katsav as president.
"I regret the fact that we have come to this point," said Itzik, who simultaneously continues in the post of Speaker. "The institution of the presidency is in the midst of a crisis and this is a trying time for all of us. I am certain that a trial of truth and justice will quickly take place."
A day after Wednesday's stormy press conference at Beit Hanassi, Katsav was enjoying, at least, the support of his family.
"The family is going through a tough time. We have been through almost seven rough months in which we couldn't sleep at night. These are sad days, full of terrible anguish and crying," Lior Katsav, the president's brother, said Thursday evening.
"However, we are giving the president our moral support. We all - his wife, Gila, who gives him all the support he needs, his children, and his siblings - know and love him, and we trust and believe in him," he added.
Lior Katsav said that the president's speech reflected his despair. "The president had absorbed, for a long time, public slanders in the media and his reaction was natural, normal, and most of all genuine. The Beit Hanassi telephone switchboard collapsed after the president's speech. Thousands of people called to express their support."
According to a senior source in Beit Hanassi, hundreds of additional messages of sympathy and support began arriving from all sectors of society - notably from the Orthodox, Sephardi and Arab communities - as soon as Katsav concluded his statement on Wednesday evening.
Lior Katsav added that the family was shocked by Mazuz's announcement on Tuesday that there is a case for indicting president for rape. "We think there is no reason to indict the president. He is an honorable man and a man of morality who is being plotted against. We passed all the evidence we had to the attorney-general and we will continue to do so," he said.
The House Committee's decision Thursday came after a dramatic day of deliberations and flip-flopping by MKs. The seven-hour debate began with members tied 11 to 11 on whether to consent to the suspension and three MKs missing from the debate. The appearance of two of those MKs put the vote at 12-12, and it was ultimately Kadima MK Yoel Hasson's decision to change his vote which swung the final result in Katsav's favor.
Hasson had not only released a statement Tuesday night that if Katsav requested a temporary suspension, the Knesset would not pass it - he had also urged his fellow MKs to not "dishonor the Knesset" by granting Katsav's request.
However, after intense consultation with coalition chairman MK Avigdor Yitzhaki, Hasson announced that he had changed his mind, telling the committee that the most important thing was to see Katsav removed from office as soon as possible.
At one point in the afternoon, it looked as though the committee might not vote at all. Committee chairwoman Ruhama Avraham called a break in an attempt to negotiate an agreement between the party whips.
"We should be able to come to some sort of unanimous agreement for the good of the Knesset and of all the factions," said Avraham. After 30 minutes of deliberations, Avraham said that faction heads were unable to reach an agreement.
The parties who voted in favor of Katsav's request were the Gil Pensioners, Kadima, Shas, Israel Beiteinu and Hadash, while Labor, Likud, National Union-National Religious Party, Meretz and United Arab List voted against.
The MKs voting against Katsav's request did so mainly because they preferred to see the Knesset use its authority to forcibly remove Katsav from office. Those MKs, led by Gal-On, Shelly Yacimovich (Labor) and Yoram Marciano (Labor), said they would continue to work on their petition to force Katsav to resign.
Gal-On said that granting Katsav's request would be "a present for the president." The Meretz MK said that anyone who voted in favor of Katsav's request was effectively giving his accusers - at least four women who say the president committed varying degrees of sexual assault - a slap in the face.
She added that "not only is Katsav, the man," on the stand, "but the honor of the institution of the presidency." In addition, Yacimovich and Gal-On, protesting the absence of Katsav's legal advisers, Zion Amir and David Liba'i, attempted to convince Avraham to halt the committee's proceedings until they could be present.
Liba'i and Amir told reporters that they had not been officially invited to the hearing; however, Amir was contacted and said that "if I receive an official request from the committee, I'll come today."
Gal-On also criticized Knesset legal adviser Nurit Elstein for telling the committee that impeachment could take as long as six weeks. Gal-On insisted there was no clause in the Basic Law: Section 28 setting a particular time span for an impeachment case, and that it was possible to bring the matter to the Knesset plenum as early as Monday.
Greer Fay Cashman contributed to this report.