JERUSALEM - Former Israeli President Moshe Katsav was convicted of rape yesterday, a dramatic fall from grace for a man who rose from humble beginnings to become a symbol of achievement for Jews of Middle Eastern origin.
The disgraced politician, who had rejected a plea bargain that would have kept him out of jail, will likely be sentenced to four to 16 years in prison. The verdict was seen as a victory for the Israeli legal system and for women's rights in a decades-long struggle to chip away at the nation's macho culture, which once permitted political and military leaders great liberties.
The Tel Aviv District Court found Katsav, 65, guilty of two counts of raping an employee in 1998, when he was Israel's tourism minister. It also convicted him of lesser counts of indecent acts; sexual harassment involving two other women who worked for him when he was president, from 2000 to 2007; and obstruction of justice.
Katsav denied all allegations, claiming he was a victim of a political witch hunt and suggesting he was targeted because he is a Sephardic Jew - a Jew of Middle Eastern origin. But in yesterday's ruling, the three-judge panel said his version of events was "strewn with lies."
A somber Katsav left the courtroom without commenting. His wife, Gila, didn't appear in court.
Israel's presidency is a largely ceremonial post, traditionally given to elder statesmen as a reward for a lifetime of public service. Winning the office capped a career in which Katsav became a model of success for Sephardic Jews, who for decades were a Jewish underclass in Israel relative to the well-off, European-rooted establishment.
Katsav's world began to crumble late in his presidency when he complained that a female employee was trying to extort him. The woman went to police with her side of the story, detailing a series of sexual assaults. Other women came forward with similar complaints.
According to the indictment, Katsav forced one woman to the floor of his office at the Tourism Ministry in 1998 and raped her. Later that year, he summoned her to a Jerusalem hotel to go over paperwork and raped her on the bed in his room. The indictment alleged that Katsav tried to calm his victim by saying: "Relax, you'll enjoy it."
The indictment alleged that he harassed two women while he was president, embracing them against their will and making unwanted sexual comments. He also was charged with obstruction of justice: The indictment said Katsav tried to persuade one of the women to change her testimony.
Under heavy public pressure, Katsav resigned in 2007, two weeks before his term expired, under a plea bargain that would have required him to admit to lesser charges of sexual misconduct. But in a dramatic reversal, Katsav subsequently rejected the deal and vowed to clear his name in court.