Moshe Katsav was expected to step down as Israel's president after agreeing today to plead guilty to sexual harassment rather than face more serious charges that he raped female staffers.
Under the plea agreement announced by Atty. Gen. Menachem Mazuz, the 61-year-old Katsav will avoid jail time, raising an outcry among women's rights activists who saw the case as an important test of Israel's commitment to stamp out sexual harassment in the workplace.
The presidency in Israel is largely a ceremonial position; political power rests with the prime minister.
The Katsav case was among a list of scandals that have eroded Israelis' confidence in their leaders. Justice Minister Haim Ramon quit after being accused of forcibly kissing a female soldier and later was convicted of an indecent act. Corruption allegations also have swirled around top officials, including Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.
The president faced possible indictment on charges that he raped and sexually harassed female subordinates while serving as president and earlier as tourism minister. In January, Mazuz warned Katsav that authorities had enough evidence to indict on allegations involving four women, but the attorney general had yet to issue formal charges.
Katsav agreed to plead guilty to lesser charges, including sexual harassment, indecent acts and harassment of a witness, Mazuz said today. Katsav will pay damages, but prison time was suspended under the deal, which requires court approval.
Katsav was expected to resign later today, though that move was largely symbolic because his term ends next month. The Israeli parliament had already elected a successor, Shimon Peres, who takes over July 15.
Mazuz defended the decision to drop the more serious charges, saying they were going to be difficult to prove in court.
"I have reached the conclusion that I cannot in fact determine that we have crossed the threshold of the reasonable chance of conviction," Mazuz told reporters.
The plea would spare the country and alleged victims the spectacle of a trial and prevent further damage to the presidency, Mazuz said.
"From the status of No. 1 citizen, he will have dropped to the status of a man convicted of sex offenses, bearing eternal turpitude and shame," Mazuz said.
Women's rights advocates accused Mazuz of giving Katsav preferential treatment and undermining efforts to encourage Israelis to step forward with complaints about harassment on the job.
"We talk about citizens being equal before the law, and here we see a man of stature, power, money, advisors, the finest attorneys - and all these together succeed in imposing their way on the state of Israel and reach a deal that conveys a grave message," Shelly Yacimovich, a lawmaker from the center-left Labor Party, told Israel Radio.
Katsav, elected to a seven-year term in 2000, had vehemently denied wrongdoing since sexual-misconduct allegations were lodged last summer by a presidential staffer, identified publicly only by her first initial, A. Other women later stepped forward with additional allegations, but the statute of limitations had run out on some of those charges.
In January, Mazuz notified Katsav that he planned to indict pending the outcome of a subsequent hearing. But after that hearing in May, Katsav's lawyers and prosecutors began discussing a plea bargain.
Katsav's lawyers said they persuaded him to admit guilt to lesser charges to avoid the rape indictment.
Moshe Negbi, a legal analyst for Israel Radio, said the outcome would leave few Israelis satisfied.
"The president maintains he did nothing but is willing to confess so as to spare his family the suffering. And the women say they aren't retracting a single word, but the prosecution capitulated to a man in high office," Negbi said. "The public will believe in either option, but will no longer believe in the system itself."