Foreign Ministry looks for silver lining

Katsav scandal may prove useful for diplomats: No one in Israel above the law.

The bad news, of course, is that President Moshe Katsav may face rape charges. The good news, at least according to talking points sent to Israel's delegations abroad, is that in Israel nobody is above the law. With the world's newspapers full of reports of Katsav's fall, the Foreign Ministry found it necessary Wednesday to arm its representatives abroad with answers to the numerous queries about the Katsav episode. "If asked about this issue, you are requested to emphasize that Israel is a state governed by law obligated to the execution of justice whenever there is a criminal offense," the Foreign Ministry advised its representatives. According to these recommendations, Israel's representatives should stress that equality before the law is one of the foundations of Israel's democracy, and that the country's judicial system is obligated to the principle of non-biased justice. In a clear effort to find the silver lining in the whole process, these talking points said there were only a few countries in the world where equality of the law would be translated into practice and the president of the state could come under a criminal investigation. "Israel is one of those few nations," the talking points read. Israel's representatives were advised to emphasize that the legal process has not yet run its course, and that Katsav was innocent until proven guilty. One senior diplomatic official, taking this line of reasoning any further, said that the whole episode has given Israel the opportunity to highlight "the fact that we are a strong democracy governed by the rule of law." The official, who is familiar with Israel's attempts to "re-brand" itself abroad, said that from a branding perspective "the fact that a president can be indicted like anyone else is something that should be highlighted. This shows that there is due legal process in Israel, that we are not a theocracy or monarchy, but rather a strong, self-critical democracy." Nevertheless, one government spokesman closely involved in Israel's hasbara (explanation) efforts said that the indictment is "horrific" for Israel's image. Israel is presented abroad as the Jewish state, a country that embodies Jewish values, the official said, and now for the president to possibly be charged with rape is a major disaster - less among foreign leaders than among the wider public. Still, another diplomatic official said that while the Katsav case as well as the other corruption-related stories coming out of Israel in recent weeks created an image problem for the country, it would not impact on how other governments deal with it, or on the level of investment and tourism. Pointing to the bribery scandals that rocked Italy in the early 1990s, and which led former prime minister Bettino Craxi to live in exile in Tunisia, the official said this did not damage either tourism to Italy, its economy, or its diplomatic standing in the world. Likewise, the official said, the Bill Clinton-Monica Lewisnky scandal had no impact on the US's position in the world. He said that while the recent news made it "uncomfortable" for Israeli representatives abroad, it would have little lasting damage. The official rejected the idea that now it would be more difficult for Israel to warn about rampant corruption and malfeasance in the Palestinian Authority, saying that at least Israel was trying to clean itself up. Because Israel was not hiding anything and taking judicial steps to deal with the situation, it had the moral right to preach against corruption to others, he said. Referring to the Yom Kippur liturgy, the official said that only a country that says "we have sinned, we have trespassed" can come out with a clear conscience about the corruption of others.