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Ira Sharkansky



Possible Katzav sex scandal diverts
media attention from Gaza operation, July 11, 2006

By Ira Sharkansky
JERUSALEM —There is still news from Gaza. The IDF continues to pick off the bad guys, damage bridges and other infrastructure. The casualties include young boys who cannot resist hanging around the fighters. There are cries of panic about only enough food and fuel for a few days, and competing claims that there is enough for a month, and that there would be more if the Palestinians would agree to transfer the stuff through checkpoints that Israel controls.
But that is not all. Our president, Moshe Katzav, has got himself into something that is taking even more media space than Gaza. He claims that a former employee of the presidential establishment has tried to blackmail him, with leverage that she claims is sexual harassment. He says there was no such thing. She has gone into seclusion, and her lawyer is saying little. Last night we heard a commentator describe a 30's something woman of marginal stability who had harassed the president. This morning there is a report from another woman that the president harassed her when she worked for him in a previous position.
Yesterday's cartoon on the op-ed page of Ha'aretz showed a nervous president reading Bill Clinton's biography. Today's shows a referee approaching the presidential desk holding aloft a red card. For those not familiar with non-American football, that is the sign that a player is to be removed from the game for unsportsperson conduct.
There is about a year left in the presidential term. Commentators are arguing as to whether he will finish or go home in shame. His predecessor left early under a charge of accepting improper (nonsexual) gifts. From the looks of it, Israel's presidency is a hazardous occupation.
The office is largely ceremonial. Items on last nights news, other than the potential scandal, showed him sipping wine with new ambassadors who had presented their credentials. He also travels abroad, shakes a lot of hands, hosts cultural events in the presidential mansion, expresses himself on the politically correct side of national controversies, and attends ceremonies. The rules are that the audience stands when he enters, and does not leave until he does. 
Like Britain's queen, Israel's president hears reports on important stuff from the key individuals who make the real decisions, and may express his advice. After an election, he consults with the heads of the parties elected to the Knesset, and picks the individual he thinks most capable of forming a government. There is discretion in this role, but my recollections are that the president has always, or almost always, given the nod to the head of the largest party. Unlike the queen, he can aspire to bigger things. This president was said to be considering running for the leadership of Likud, and positioning himself as a possible prime minister. He had been a Likud Member of Knesset and middle-ranking government minister before winning the Knesset's election as president. The Likud is still troubled by a major loss in the recent election, and mutterings against its current leader, Benyamin Netanyahu. One of the speculations is that Katzav's rivals in Likud leaked the details that started the current fascination with his personal behavior.
When political observers say that key figures are only made of flesh and blood, they usually mean testosterone.

Sharkansky is an emeritus member of the political science department at Hebrew University in Jerusalem