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Israel's president defends his reputation while offering to step aside

JERUSALEM—In a bid to salvage his job and his reputation, Israeli President Moshe Katsav offered Wednesday to step aside temporarily while he fights possible rape charges, then went on national television to deliver an impassioned pledge to clear his name.

With his wife, Gila, looking on, Katsav refused to resign during the hourlong address, categorically rejected the allegations and accused the Israeli news media of serving as a lynch mob.

"I will fight to my last breath—even if I have to fight a world war—to prove my innocence," Katsav said during his television appearance, which was interrupted briefly by a shouting match with a reporter whose television coverage the president had criticized.

Minutes after Katsav spoke, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who's facing his own, unrelated criminal probe, called for the president to resign.

The presidential scandal comes as Israel's leaders face a growing crisis of public confidence fed by the political upheaval that began during last summer's 34-day war in Lebanon.

Since the war ended in August, the justice minister has been forced to step down and face indecent assault charges for kissing a 21-year-old soldier, the military chief of staff has resigned under criticism for his wartime leadership, the attorney general has opened a criminal investigation into Olmert's role in privatizing a leading Israeli bank and Olmert's longtime office manager has been placed under house arrest while police investigate allegations that she helped line up jobs for friends at the nation's Tax Authority.

Katsav, whose seven-year term ends next summer, is fighting to avoid becoming the first sitting Israeli president to be charged with a crime.

"It's an epidemic," said lawyer Michael Partem, the vice chairman of the Movement for Quality Government in Israel. "It's certainly a black mark on the quality of government when a public official is caught, and more so when it's the head of the pyramid."

Katsav's troubles began in July, one week before Hezbollah fighters captured two Israeli soldiers patrolling the Israel-Lebanon border on July 12. Katsav asked the attorney general to look into his claims that he was being blackmailed by a former employee who was threatening to accuse him of sexual misconduct if he didn't pay. He gave investigators a copy of a secretly recorded phone call with his accuser to back his claim.

But the investigation, details of which have yet to be made public, quickly turned its focus to Katsav as other women came forward to level similar accusations against the 61-year-old president.

Attorney General Meni Mazuz announced Tuesday that he expected to charge Katsav with raping a former employee in the late 1990s—when he was tourism minister—with abuse of power and with sexually harassing three other women who worked for him while he was president.

Katsav will have a chance in coming weeks to mount a defense. If he can convince Mazuz that the allegations are false, he could avoid prosecution.

In his address Wednesday, Katsav pledged to step down if he's indicted. Until then, he's asking Israeli lawmakers to approve his request for a three-month leave of absence while he challenges the allegations.

"I promise you that history will not say that the eighth president of Israel was guilty of crimes, but I promise you that instead history will say the eighth president was the victim of a witch hunt," Katsav said.

Israel has endured a series of political scandals over the years, but the accusations against Katsav have cast a particular pall.

"Israel's image is worse than it has ever been," analyst Sever Plocker wrote Wednesday in Israel's Yediot Ahronot newspaper. "Israel no longer appears as a flourishing high-tech power, and not even as a cruel occupying power. It appears as something completely different: a country that is dysfunctional and in decline."

If there's an upside to the controversy, Partem said, it may be that the accusations suggest that Israel is moving into a new era in which a certain level of sexual misconduct among the nation's leaders no longer is accepted.

"There is a general feeling that behavior that was tolerated 20 or 30 years ago is today much less tolerated," Partem said. "And perhaps Katsav grew up in a climate where this kind of thing was more common and people looked the other way."

Since Katsav holds a largely ceremonial post, his troubles aren't expected to have a direct impact on Olmert's government. But the scandals swirling around the prime minister are creating a growing sense that his coalition could collapse.

The final blow may come not from any political scandal, but from the findings of a special committee that's looking into Israel's handling of its war with Hezbollah, said Uzi Dayan, a former head of Israel's National Security Council who started an anti-corruption political party that failed to win any seats in last year's legislative elections.

The committee is expected to deliver a highly critical review of Israel's war plans, and the findings could cost Olmert what's left of his popularity, now at 14 percent.

"I think that this government is dead," Dayan said. "It's just a matter of time before this government will fall apart. It might take some time. They are dead, but not buried."

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(McClatchy Newspapers special correspondent Cliff Churgin contributed to this report.)

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(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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