Katsav denies sexual improprieties

President Moshe Katsav has categorically denied that there were any sexual improprieties between him and a former senior secretarial staff member of Beit Hanassi. "Our relations were strictly of a working nature," Katsav told reporters on Monday. It was business as usual at Beit Hanassi early in the morning with the presentation of credentials by three new envoys. Katsav received them all with a broad smile on his face. There were several more journalists - certainly more television cameramen - than are usually present on such occasions, but Katsav's spokeswoman Hagit Cohen told them that there was little chance that the president would speak to them. However the journalists decided to wait for an opportunity, which came unexpectedly after Katsav bid farewell to Ecuadoran Ambassador Rafael Veintimilla. Channel 1's Yuli Ofek seized the moment as Katsav was turning away to ask him how he felt in view of all that had transpired over the past few days. Katsav turned back to tell her that he was feeling a little despondent but that he was sure that this would pass. As he was about to move away, the police band struck up Hatikva as is customary at the conclusion of a presentation of credentials ceremony, and Katsav stood rooted to the spot. As soon as the last note of the anthem died away, journalists closed in on the president and Ofek persisted with her questions. When asked whether he had presented Attorney-General Menahem Mazuz with the documented evidence - referred to the previous day by Mazuz - proving reported blackmail allegations against him by the said employee, Katsav said, "What I transfer to Mazuz, when I transfer it and how is strictly between me and Mazuz and not the business of journalists." Ofek, who had earlier told her colleagues that she was incapable of asking Katsav the most crucial question just as she had been incapable of asking the late President Ezer Weizman whether he had accepted payments from billionaire Edward Sarussi, suddenly found the courage and told Katsav that there was one question which occupied the attention of the whole nation: Did he or did he not have improper relations with the lady in question? Katsav replied that he did not and that their relations had been entirely of a working nature. He then turned and made his escape. But the media still hung around because it has been Katsav's habit during his six years in office to personally thank the members of the military honor guard that assembles as part of the welcome ceremony for new ambassadors and visiting heads of state. Usually Katsav walks out immediately after the official cars leave the grounds of Beit Hanassi. This time he waited some ten minutes, presumably hoping that the journalists might lose patience and leave. They didn't, but he was not prepared to answer any more questions. On Monday evening, an even greater media representation assembled at Beit Hanassi to capture for posterity the meeting between Katsav and Defense Minister Amir Peretz. Cohen had warned everyone in advance that there would be no statements and no questions - simply a photo opportunity. However, Channel 2's Moshe Nussbaum refused to be obstructed by instructions from a spokeswoman, and despite her efforts to silence him turned to Katsav and asked him much the same question as had been posed by Ofek earlier in the day. "I don't think it's proper that I have to answer this question every two hours," replied Katsav. "I intend to fulfill all my obligations as President and as a private citizen." Nussbaum wanted him to elaborate on this, but Cohen ordered Nussbaum out of the room and called on security personnel to ensure that all the media make a quick and orderly exit from the presedntial chambers. While Katsav could escape media inquiries, however, Cohen had no choice. Her cell phone rang almost incessantly with queries from journalists who were still trying to bridge the discrepancies in statements by Beit Hanassi and Mazuz. "The president did not lodge a complaint. There is nothing more to add," repeated Cohen again and again, until Katsav himself provided the new headlines. Since the story erupted on Saturday night, Cohen has not been getting much sleep. Journalists are calling her at all hours of the night and day, but mostly between 9 p.m. and 2 a.m. The story will not go away, and speculations as to how it will proceed are part and parcel of all news and current affairs programs on the electronic media. Journalists at Beit Hanassi who were comparing the Katsav case with the Weizman case also made the comparison with that of star soccer player Zinedine Zidane, who instead of leading the French team to victory in the World Cup final put a huge blot on his reputation in his farewell game. Except for taking the occasional luxury of making a political comment, Katsav had maintained an almost squeaky-clean reputation until this, his final year in office. It would be a shame, opined the journalists, for dirt to stick to it at this stage. At the Vin d'Honneur hosted by the three new envoys at the King David Hotel, Foreign Ministry staff who were just leaving Beit Hanassi when Ofek posed her first question were eager to learn answers. In fact, the Beit Hanassi scandal was the most popular topic among the Israelis present, overriding political and security issues. "The whole episode brings us neither joy nor honor," remarked a Foreign Ministry senior staff member. "If anything, it casts a blemish on the institution of the presidency." When the Weizman-Sarussi affair became public knowledge, Weizman immediately hired a lawyer to get him off the hook. As far as is known, Katsav has not yet selected a legal representative, believing that he does not need one. Katsav is consulting with former justice minister Prof. David Libai, now a practising lawyer, on the legal implications of the case, but he has not retained him as his attorney.