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How Long Should Israel's Former President (and a Convicted Rapist) Spend Behind Bars?

By Allison Kaplan Sommer

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Moshe Katsav

Imagine for a moment that Monica Lewinsky had not been so enthusiastic about pursuing a sexual relationship with President Clinton, that he had pursued her against her will, and had imposed himself on her physically.

Now imagine that the Lewinsky affair had opened a Pandora’s Box of women from various stages of Clinton’s career coming forward and accusing him of levels of sexually abusive behavior — ranging from unwanted fondling to outright rape. Add to that imaginary scenario that the wheels of justice had turned, the women were found to be credible and the machinations of Clinton’s cronies to silence or intimidate them self-incriminating, and that, four years later, the former President was convicted in a court of law of rape.

Even if it was proved beyond a reasonable doubt that he behaved criminally, wouldn’t Americans feel a pang at the prospect of seeing the man who held such a lofty post and once represented their nation to the world, dressed in a prison jumpsuit and led into a cell?

That is the prospect the Israeli public faces as the sentencing of former President Moshe Katsav is imminent. His sentencing will take place on March 8, which, coincidentally, is International Women’s Day and attorneys are in court this week making their arguments on sentencing.

The public reaction to the entire Katsav affair has been a source of great national ambivalence with no shortage of mixed emotions. On one hand, shame and outrage from those who ask how Katsav got away the boorish behavior of which he was convicted. The fact that some members of Knesset who were apparently familiar with rumors of Katsav’s behavior elected such a man a position of prestige and power is a cause for outrage.

On one hand, there is justified pride in the courage of the women who came forward, particularly those who were previously silent and chose to break that silence in solidarity with previous accusers, whose character and credibility was publicly smeared by Katsav’s supporters. There is also pride in the legal system that he was judged fairly, and his conviction was held up as a sign that Israeli democracy is still alive and kicking. Back when Katsav was convicted, journalist/blogger Jeffrey Goldberg noted the aspects of the verdict that impressed him:

1) An ex-president of the nation was brought to account for his alleged crimes. Doesn’t happen too often in Israel’s neighborhood.

2) The crimes in question were crimes against women. Happens only rarely in the non-democratic East.

3) Two of the three judges in the Katsav case were women — doesn’t happen.

4) Here’s the stunner — the head judge of the three-judge panel was an Arab Israeli named George Karra.

5) Maybe this is the real stunner: No one in Israel seemed to think it abnormal for an Arab citizen of the Jewish state to sit in judgment of a Jewish ex-president.

6) And, by the way, the president was convicted.

Indeed, Katsav was convicted, and now he is going to be sentenced. Conviction on a rape charge is certain to result in prison time. The question is how much time is appropriate — a short, single-digit number of years, or closer to the maximum sentencing for his crime, 16 years.

Should his status as a former president result in a stiffer sentence or a more lenient one? That debate is taking place on every Israeli media outlet.

Unsurprisingly, much of the point-counterpoint breaks down along gender lines. Ynet’s dueling opinion pieces on the topic reflected that disagreement. Male columnist Yigal Sarna argued that while there was no mitigating Katsav’s acts, as he saw it justice has been done, there was no need for a long sentence:

[Katsav’s] coercive and ugly relationship with the women involved in the trial was fully exposed. Rare justice was done here. The former president was tried and the full extent of his wrongdoing was revealed. Even if he is jailed for just a few years, deterrence had been fully achieved.

Female author and journalist Smadar Shir’s retort reflected the sentiments of many Israeli women. She, like many, believes the fact that Katsav has not expressed regret and has not even publicly acknowledged his crimes should weigh in favor of a harsh sentence.

Moshe Katsav must spend long years behind bars to convey the message to other members of his gender who think that their money or status allows them to abuse women who would not dare complain. Katsav, precisely because he was at the top of the pyramid, must spend long years in a stinky cell and scrub toilets to deter others who think that their post allows them to oppress women who must be delighted to get the attention. I may have accommodated him had he asked for forgiveness and admitted that even the president is no more than a horny man who gave in to his member. Yet a man who dares argue that the women wanted him is not deserving of mercy or a pardon. You wanted to be a man, so go ahead please. You screwed up, so now pay the price. You raped, so now you shall do the time.

Yet many Orthodox rabbis have wholly accepted the former president’s protestations of total innocence. A recent Ynet article reads:

Dozens of prominent rabbis, yeshiva leaders and educators sent a letter to former President Moshe Katsav, expressing their support and congratulating him for his “unwavering insistence on the truth, from the beginning to the end.”


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