JERUSALEM — For the past four and a half years, Moshe Katsav’s name has come with an asterisk: the former Israeli president was investigated for charges of rape and sexual misconduct.
Last week, A three-judge panel unanimously convicted Katsav on two counts of rape, sexual harassment and abuse, and obstruction of justice. In handing down the ruling, the judges called Katsav a liar.
The yearlong trial was largely kept out of the public spotlight, but with Katsav’s conviction, Israeli and international media are pushing the issue into widespread public discussion. But different media have handled the situation differently, said Aryeh Green, director of Media Central, a Jerusalem organization that helps journalists access Israeli sources.
“The international press is all over this, especially Al Jazeera and Iranian TV. For them, it’s great: it shows the Jews as being real perverts,” said Green. “But I’d say on the whole in Israel, it’s being covered with relative moderation. Not the fanfare that Israel’s enemies have been delighted to cover it with.”
With numerous scandals surrounding Israeli politicians in recent years, “there’s been a keen sense of embarrassment from most of Israeli society,” said Green. “The media is just trying to report the facts.”
The discussion now seems to have shifted to punishment. Katsav could receive up to 16 years in prison for the convictions; he could be pardoned; he could lose his pension.
Each option has its own set of supporters and naysayers.
“A lot of people here say he should be punished more severely because he’s a representative of society, he’s a symbol,” said Michal Kahn, a Jerusalem production department manager. “But what’s illegal is illegal. He should go to jail, but he shouldn’t be crucified.”
What, then, is an appropriate punishment?
“The conversation in Israel is whether he should be pardoned,” said Green. “He’s been convicted; has he been punished enough in losing his name, losing the presidency, losing his credibility? Or does he need to go to prison to set an example for society?”
While much of Israeli society is trying to move on from the internationally embarrassing case, many women’s groups are hailing the convictions.
“I wish I could tell you this will change the face of Israeli society, but even if it does not it is another step, a sign of change,” said Merav Michaeli, a leading Israeli feminist and well-known television personality. “The judges believed the women and understood and recognized the impossible position women are often placed in when working for such powerful men.”
Added Green, “This shows Israel’s judicial system to be robust, that even the president can be convicted. He’s not immune from prosecution.”
Haaretz quoted Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as saying last week, “Today the court conveyed two clear-cut messages, that all are equal before the law and that every woman has exclusive rights to her body.”
A further discourse common in Israel in light of the conviction isn’t a new one: that the country is wistful for its classic, now legendary leaders including Ze’ev Jabotinsky and David Ben-Gurion.
“Israel hasn’t had good orators — people who know how to speak to the people — since 1948,” said Kahn. “From that, of course, there’s no respect toward politicians.”
(Justin Jacobs can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. JTA contributed to this story.)