Sunday 2 January 2011

Time to Take Stock and Learn Lessons

Israel's most shameful episode in its short history came to a head late last week in the Tel Aviv District Court, when former President Moshe Katsav was found guilty of rape and sexual assault. This took place during his period in office as tourism minister and president of the State of Israel. The country has had to deal with scandal and shame in the past, but this episode must surely rank as the most shameful incident in history. What sets this story apart from other cases of rape and sexual assault, all of which are abhorrent, is the fact that this man used his power and position to force himself on women against their will.

Moshe Katsav was born in Iran and immigrated to Israel at the age of 6 years old with his parents and family. The family settled in a transit camp near the city of Ashdod. This camp went on to become the town of Kiryat Malachi, where Katsav and his family live to this day. At the age of 24, he was elected mayor of Kiryat Malachi and took his seat in the Knesset for the first time 8 years later. During his 23 years in the Knesset, he held a variety of government positions including three ministries and the post of deputy prime minister. He was elected as the president of Israel in 2000 in a surprise victory over his rival, Shimon Peres. Peres eventually succeeded Katsav in 2007 when he stepped down to face the charges levelled against him.

There can be no doubt that Katsav's Iranian background served to reinforce the prevalent Middle-Eastern culture of a society where males dominate. This attitude can also be found in many parts of modern Israeli society despite indications to the contrary. Many aspects of Israel project equality between the sexes to the international world. These include the fact that Israel was only the third country in the world to have a female prime minister, and the fact that girls are also subject to the draft and are obliged to serve in the military along with their male counterparts. Despite these measures of equality and others that can be found in Israel, the reality is that Israeli society continues to be dominated by males. This will also have been a contributing factor in setting the scene for the crimes that took place in the offices of government and in the residence of the president of the state.

When the accusations against Katsav first surfaced, he was already safely ensconced in the president's mansion. The fact that one woman had the courage to come forward to accuse the man in the highest position in the country, emboldened others to accuse him of similar crimes. Soon, a number of women were telling of their experiences at the hands of Katsav. Because of the seniority of his position in government, the women did not have the courage to come forward until this moment. Once the first of the stories were told, it opened the floodgates until the police were unable to ignore the accusations. It took some brave actions on the part of police and prosecutors to bring this action against the sitting president.

Katsav was offered the opportunity to avoid scandal and embarrassment when the police offered him a plea bargain. In return for dropping the most serious of the charges, Katsav was offered the opportunity to plead guilty to lesser charges and receive a suspended sentence. Astonishingly, he rejected the plea bargain in favour of a court trial in a quest to "clear his name". It is unclear whether he thought that he could use his political influence to engineer an innocent verdict from the court, or whether he genuinely felt he had done nothing wrong. I rather suspect that it was the former, but his audacity in rejecting the plea bargain added insult to injury in the eyes of the judges and the public. In this case, the Israeli legal system showed itself able to maintain its independence under enormous political pressure. Following a lengthy trial and an equally lengthy period while the judges considered the evidence, the three judges on the bench returned with a unanimous verdict - guilty! The former president's fall from grace was complete, together with the embarrassment that he has heaped on Israel.

The hearing to sentence Katsav will be held during the course of January, and he is expected to receive a long custodial sentence. Even the former president is not above the law. and he will be subject to the same punishment as all other citizens. Despite being accustomed to scandals of all types, the public has been shocked by the nature of the crimes and level of coercion and abuse of powers that has become evident from the case.

The story, however, cannot be allowed to end when sentence is passed. Israeli society needs to take a long hard look at itself in order to identify the flaws in society that allowed such a crime to take place. Even though it is the most high profile of its type, it is certainly not the only example of such abuse of power to commit criminal acts. It is high time for such behaviour to be stamped out. It is easier said than done, however, with almost every aspect of Israeli society affected.

An example needs, firstly, to be set by the country's senior leaders. They need to make it clear that such abuse of position and encroachment on the privacy of women is unacceptable. They also need to behave in a way that reinforces this position. A huge undertaking is required within the ranks of the military where such behaviour is reported to be rife. The central position of the IDF to Israeli society means that this action is essential and urgent.

I recognise that a change of this magnitude will take years, if not generations until a noticeable change is seen in Israeli society. In the meantime, it is important for me that my children and their peers will grow up understanding what is right and what is wrong, and holding the relevant people responsible for behaving accordingly. We cannot undo the damage done by Katsav, but it is our responsibility to learn lessons from this case to ensure that it does not happen again.

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