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Israeli Lawmakers Approve Leave of Absence for President


A parliamentary committee of the Israeli Knesset on Thursday approved a leave of absence for the country's president who could be indicted soon on charges of rape and abuse of power. VOA's Jim Teeple has details from our Jerusalem bureau.

After a bitter day-long debate a parliamentary committee agreed to declare President Moshe Katsav temporarily incapacitated for three months. Mr. Katsav requested the leave of absence after Israel's attorney general said he had enough evidence to charge Mr. Katsav with rape and abuse of power.

The allegations are based on the testimony of four women who worked for the veteran Israeli politician. Mr. Katsav has served as Israel's ceremonial head of state since 2000.

In an emotional news conference Wednesday night, Mr. Katsav denied the charges, saying he was the victim of a smear campaign by Israel's media, and blackmail by his accusers. At the same time Mr. Katsav said he will immediately resign his post if a formal indictment against him is issued. Under Israeli law, he is allowed one opportunity to present his case at a hearing before a formal indictment can be made.

Mr. Katsav is facing a growing chorus to resign. On Wednesday, Israel's prime minister and foreign minister both said under the present circumstances, he could no longer perform his official duties. Speaking Thursday, Tourism Minister, Isaac Herzog, whose father served as Israel's sixth president, said the institution of the presidency is at stake.

"I pray for the President to be fully acquitted. At the present circumstances of preserving the sustainability and the importance of the institution of the presidency in Israel, and in order to preserve the cleanliness of Israeli public life, the president should resign at once," said Herzog.

While parliament has approved a leave of absence for Mr. Katsav, many Knesset members want to move forward with impeachment proceedings.

Mr. Katsav currently enjoys presidential immunity and can only be tried in criminal court if he resigns, is impeached by three-quarters of Israel's parliament, or after his seven-year term ends in July. More than 30 lawmakers, ten more than necessary, have signed a petition to begin immediate impeachment proceedings. Mr. Katsav can only be impeached if 90 members in Israel's 120-seat Knesset vote to do so - something most analysts say is currently unlikely to happen.

While Mr. Katsav has loudly proclaimed his innocence, polls show an overwhelming majority of Israelis do not believe him. On average about 70 percent of Israelis polled in different surveys say Mr. Katsav should resign immediately with about 30 percent saying he should not.

No Israeli president has ever been formally charged with a criminal offense, although Mr. Katsav's predecessor Ezer Weizman resigned before his term ended amid allegations that he received about $300,000 worth of gifts from a French businessman.

As Mr. Katsav stepped aside on Thursday, parliamentary speaker Dalia Itzik took over his official duties on an acting basis, becoming the first woman to serve as Israel's ceremonial head of state.

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