An enraged President Moshe Katsav pledged Wednesday evening to fight - "until my last breath" - to clear his name of sexual-assault charges, after earlier asking the Knesset to allow him to take a temporary leave of office but refusing public appeals to resign. Katsav made the request in a letter to the Knesset House Committee, which is scheduled to convene on Thursday to consider it.
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Accompanied by family members who sat nearby, Katsav took the podium at Beit Hanassi and in an emotional diatribe that lasted close to an hour unleashed a barrage of accusations at the media, police and Attorney-General Menahem Mazuz for conducting a "witch hunt" against him.
"My friends and I have stood against a vile attack while my name and reputation have been dragged through the mud," he said, holding back tears. "I have refrained from responding... and even during these difficult days I do not intend to lower my head in humiliation. I will struggle with all my strength to clear my name."
"Citizens of Israel, it is you who will be struck dumbfounded by the truth," he added. "The truth no newspaper will be able to hide. I have never hurt any man or woman. I have always carried out my duties with dignity and honor."
Katsav has been under intense pressure to quit since Mazuz informed him Tuesday that he planned to indict him on a range of charges, including rape, abuse of power and sexual assault against four women who once worked for him.
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, speaking Wednesday at the closing session of the Herzliya Conference, run by the Institute for Policy and Strategy of the IDC Herzliya, called on Katsav to step down.
"I can't start my comments this evening," he said, "without relating to the events of the last 24 hours and the attorney-general's decision to give the president a hearing in light of the possibility that a grave indictment will be issued against him."
Under these circumstances, Olmert said, "I have no doubt that the president cannot continue to fulfill his position and he should leave Beit Hanassi." After applause from the audience, he added: "This is a sad day for the State of Israel."
Katsav vowed that he would not go down as the first president to be found guilty of criminal offenses. "It would be easier for me to resign. But I am not ready to surrender to blackmail," he said. "I know the truth."
"If the attorney-general decides - and he has not decided yet to indict me, he is only considering it - I will not hesitate to step down," Katsav said. "If, God forbid, the attorney-general makes this decision, I promise I will leave this house."
Katsav focused his wrath on the media, and engaged in a screaming match with Channel 2 anchor Gadi Sukeinik, who interrupted him.
"Channel 2 has spilled my blood," he shouted. "The same Channel 2 that canceled an interview with me because they preferred [to interview] Muhammad Dahlan."
The media, Katsav said, had judged him guilty before he or his legal representatives had appeared at a special hearing before the attorney-general. "There is no truth in the allegations against me," he said, adding that anyone can file a complaint with the police for reasons of vengeance: "It happened to me. It can happen to each of you."
It was done brutally and cruelly, Katsav said, addressing the media representatives in the room. "You didn't stop for a moment to consider that it might not be true," he said. The media had been against him from the moment of his election, which had been characterized as "the "end to Zionism," he said. "When the truth comes out you'll be shocked," he added.
"Citizens of Israel, don't believe the accusations!" Katsav said. "There is one truth. I am the target of one of the worst witch hunts in the history of the state. Over the past few months an unprecedented brainwashing of the public has occurred. You've heard hair-raising stories presented as truth by the media. I've survived because the truth stands with me....
"This public trial at the hands of the media has prevented me from defending myselfâ€¦ my truth. None of you has seen any evidence. I promise you that no such evidence exists. No one has asked for my side, and you grabbed onto these stories as truth. No one at any point stopped to ask if these accusations are true."
Charging "McCarthyism" and "persecution," Katsav said, "No radio or television station has searched for the truth." He said he was the victim of an "evil plot" and accused the media of spreading "outrageous stories without foundation" and "irresponsible commentary." He said he doubted that anyone could survive such an onslaught, but he had because he knew he was innocent.
Katsav said he presented the police and the prosecution with evidence in his defense, but the police had chosen to ignore it. He accused the police of intimidating witnesses who came to them in his defense. Among them, he said, was a former Beit Hanassi employee who had written to tell Katsav she was friendly with the woman who accused him of rape, and knew that it was not true.
"We presented a witness," Katsav said. "What do the police say to her? 'We are following you. We will get into your panties.' Threatening a haredi woman? This is a democratic state? Are these the standards we want in this country?
"To another witness police said, 'Watch out for your family,'" he said.
Katsav accused the police of "wanting to destroy my honor. They trampled all the parameters of justice."
He also placed blame on Mazuz, saying the attorney-general had participated in the "media lynching" against him.
"I don't understand why the attorney-general found it correct to say in an interview in September that he doesn't believe me," he said. "He had not yet received the investigation team's interim report on the day of the interview. He could have kept silent pending the conclusion of the investigation. He hurried to announce that he casts doubts on the truthfulness of my words."
Katsav, who was born in Iran, implied that the charges against him were motivated by racism against Israelis of Middle Eastern origin, who had been marginalized by Jews of European heritage.
"I saw myself as a symbol for all those who are not part of the elite clique born with silver spoons in their mouths... who believe that only they can represent the people of Israel," he said.
Even though it would be more convenient for him to resign, Katsav said, "the law does not require it, the attorney-general does not demand it and I will not bow to blackmail. The truth and the evidence are on my side." However, he said, if the attorney-general did decide to indict him, he would resign immediately. "I will not stay here one more day," he said.
"I am innocent today, and I will remain innocent tomorrow," Katsav said, "but the damage that has been done is irreversible."
"Internal Security Minister Avi Dichter categorically rejects the allegations made by the president in his efforts to blemish the law enforcement authorities, which are headed by the Israel Police and the attorney-general," read a statement released by Dichter's office soon after Katsav's speech.
"The president's comments stain 28,000 police officers who work night and day for the security of the country," the statement added. "In every instance that the president felt that investigators acted in a manner during the investigation that harmed him or his reputation, he had the right, which is guaranteed to every citizen, to file a complaint that would be followed up until it was resolved.
"The minister rejects the validity of the slander leveled at the Israel Police, and hopes that President Katsav will find the opportunity to apologize about the things that were said in a storm of emotion against people who also have emotions."
Joshua Brannon, Oren Klass, and AP contributed to this report.