On Katsav's home turf

If the panel of judges in his rape trial had been chosen at random in Kiryat Malachi, the former president probably would have been acquitted.

people in Kiryat Malachi 521 (photo credit: marc israel sellem)
people in Kiryat Malachi 521
(photo credit: marc israel sellem)
"This was already a lousy place to live in, and now this. The stigma’s gotten worse than ever. I go see my suppliers in Tel Aviv, and they start with the jokes about Kiryat Malachi. What, there are no rapists in Tel Aviv?” says a clothing store owner and fellow townsman of disgraced ex-president Moshe Katsav.
The owner, however, doesn’t think Katsav raped anybody. “It was all by consent,” he insists.
His sister, who runs the shop with him, agrees. “He’s a good-looking, attractive man, he was a VIP, and they went after him,” she says.
“He’s a fool for turning down the plea bargain,” says the brother. The siblings don’t want to be identified, saying they belong to the local Iranian community with Katsav.
“His whole family’s here. They’re religious,” says the sister. “He used to be the king. He looked like a president, in a suit and tie, and everybody would come up to him to shake his hand. If I saw him now, I’d still shake his hand. But nobody sees him anymore. He’s holed up inside his house.”
A weekend poll in Yediot Aharonot found that four out of five Israelis agree with the Tel Aviv court decision that found Katsav guilty of rape and, by the same margin, think he deserves to go to prison.
Not in Kiryat Malachi, though.
Katsav, who moved with his family from Iran to this southern development town when he was five, became its mayor at 24, then put it on the map when the Knesset chose him as president in 2000, probably would have been acquitted by a panel of judges chosen at random from the town’s 22,000 people.
In fact, Shmil Ayoubi, editor of the weekly newspaper Ma Nishma Bekiryat Malachi (“The Talk of Kiryat Malachi”), reproached the locals for venting their resentments to the media: “I saw women... pouring out their contempt on his accusers,” Ayoubi wrote, “and saying into every microphone placed before them: ‘Those women had a good time, so they shouldn’t come complaining now.’”
Kiryat Malachi is an economically depressed town founded in 1951 for Middle Eastern immigrants and has absorbed large numbers of Russian and Ethiopian immigrants in the last generation. Since the Katsav rape affair broke in the summer of 2006, all the national attention it’s gotten has been negative. Now, as the shock of the guilty verdict has worn off, the townspeople are bracing themselves for the sentencing and the next round of unwelcome media glare.
Based on interviews with locals last Friday in the shops, outside the supermarket, at a lottery kiosk and a sidewalk café, there’s a lot of resentment against the media and a widespread sense that the court bowed to public pressure to make an example out of the country’s new bad guy and will do so again in the sentencing that could well put the ex-president behind bars for many years.
At the same time, though, there is very little trust in Katsav’s story that he never did more than bestow fatherly hugs and kisses on the four women named in the indictment. (Six others complained to law enforcement against him for sexual offenses, most notably “Alef,” a former President’s Residence employee who accused him of rape.)
Off the record, several people said he has had a reputation as a ladies’ man going back to his time as mayor in the 1970s.
“I feel sad for his wife [Gila],” said Sariel Elyasi, 18, returning home from school. “But I believe he committed rape.” The latter point seemed to be a minority view.
Another minority view came from David Takiya, 64, a retired teacher who grew up with Katsav in the Kastina immigrant tent camp in the 1950s, then went to school with him. “He was always a year ahead of me – a wonderful man, never so much as a speck of impropriety was ever associated with him. I can’t and don’t believe that he did any of things he was accused of.”
Then how did he explain three judges finding unanimously that he was a rapist who “lied” and “manipulated” his way to conviction?
“Whenever they want to bring someone down, they accuse him of sexual misconduct – especially if he’s Sephardi. That’s the only explanation. We still haven’t rid ourselves of the Ashkenazi-Sephardi divide.”
This, too, was a minority view. Katsav himself claimed that he was the victim of the “elite” and “establishment” that couldn’t bear to see a poor boy from the development towns reach the top. And while he might have gotten a lot of local support for this view back in the 1970s when Sephardim were first raising their voices for equality, now it seemed that the “ethnic genie” was staying put inside his lamp.
Instead, the media were blamed for creating a “lynch atmosphere” that invaded the Tel Aviv courtroom. This was the most popular explanation for how a three-judge panel could convict Katsav so resoundingly. Again, there was a minority view, this time expressed by Amnon Hatashgah, 57, buying a lottery card:
“He was convicted by an Arab judge [George Karra]. How can you let an Arab judge a Jew? He’s going to be out for revenge.”
Hatashgah, however, was contradicted by Lil Abutbul, 39, owner of the lottery kiosk.
“What does it matter if the judge was an Arab?” she shot back. “And anyway, the two other judges were Jewish.”
Hatashgah didn’t give ground. “But one was an Arab,” he insisted.
The most common argument put forward was that the women who accused Katsav didn’t come forward right away, especially “Alef” from the President’s Residence, who asked Katsav for $200,000 and only went to the police after he turned her down.
Referring to the “second Alef,” who said Katsav raped her twice while he was tourism minister, Hatashgah said: “What is this that you wake up years later and decide that somebody raped you? Why didn’t she come forward right away?”
Reminded that 10 women complained to law enforcement against Katsav, Hatashgah replied, “So? One starts, and then the herd follows.”
Behind the counter, Abutbul wasn’t having any of it. “There are so many cases of women who were afraid to speak up about sexual assault, and it took them time to get the courage, but they weren’t lying.”
Another point that resonated was made by the clothing store owner. “This wasn’t rape like a rapist who grabs a girl on the street and takes her behind the bushes. This was different. If a woman really doesn’t want a man to start up with her, to force himself on her, she’s not helpless, she can push him away.”
His sister nodded in agreement.
In front of the Opel Café, Yossi Haddad, a city councilman and, like Katsav, a Likud member, agreed with the local consensus that “this was not rape, it was consensual.”
But beyond that, Haddad, 59, was upset over how Kiryat Malachi was being unfairly branded by this scandal.
“We’re building 7,000 new apartments in the city. We want to attract professional IDF officers, and what is this publicity going to do to the project?” the councilman demanded. “Why does all of Kiryat Malachi have to suffer because of this?”
Holding court at another table, Michel Abutbul, 51, a former municipality worker, had no opinion about Katsav’s guilt or innocence or prospects for sentencing, but he agreed with Haddad’s larger point. “Whatever Katsav did or didn’t do, that’s on his account, it isn’t on ours – or anyway, it shouldn’t be.”
Unfortunately, though, it is. Kiryat Malachi is inextricably connected with Moshe Katsav, which has become a crushing liability. Now the townspeople are waiting for the other shoe to drop.