MELISSA BLOCK, Host:
Today, Israel's President Moshe Katzav defiantly rejected calls for his resignation. Katzav is facing a possible indictment on charges of rape and sexual harassment. He asked for a leave of absence to fight the allegations.
As NPR's Linda Gradstein reports, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has joined the chorus of political leaders calling on Katzav to step down.
LINDA GRADSTEIN: In a news conference, a visibly emotional Moshe Katzav insisted he is innocent of all charges.
MOSHE KATZAV: (Through Translator) I'll tell you there is no proof, no evidence to the serious claims against me. Even if I have to fight a world war to prove my innocence, I will struggle to clear my name.
GRADSTEIN: He spoke just 24 hours after Israel's attorney general announced there is sufficient evidence to indict Katsav for rape, sexual harassment and other charges including obstruction of justice. The president's voice broke as he thanked his wife of 37 years for standing by him.
KATZAV: (Through Translator) My wife, Gila, my family are standing beside me. As time passes, and as the facts become clear, each one of these - Israel will understand the terrible injustices that were done to me. Don't believe the lies, the innuendos. There are not two truths, but one truth alone.
GRADSTEIN: Katzav blamed the Israeli media for what he called unprecedented attacks against him and his family. He said that the four women who accused him of rape or sexual harassment were angry that he had fired them or refused them jobs in the president's office. He said one of his accusers called him a few months ago to wish him a happy birthday.
It's the first time that a sitting Israeli president has been charged with a crime. But it comes as several high-ranking Israeli politicians, including Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, are under investigation on allegations of corruption. In a speech tonight, Olmert said he has no doubt that Katzav cannot continue serving as president, prompting applause from the audience.
Under Israeli law, a parliamentary committee must approve Katzav's request for a leave of absence. The committee will convene to discuss it tomorrow, and some members have said that they will call on Katzav to resign instead.
Legal scholar Moshe Negbi told Israel television that the charges, which carry up to 20 years in prison, should prompt the Knesset to impeach Katzav.
MOSHE NEGBI: The Knesset actually has the moral, if not the legal, the moral obligation to impeach him because we have here an indictment which is in my view, the (unintelligible) the gravest indictment ever brought against any public official or a politician in the history of the state of Israel.
GRADSTEIN: According to Israeli law, if the president takes a leave of absence, the speaker of Parliament takes over temporarily. The current speaker is Dalia Itzik of the center-left Labor Party. She would be the first woman to take over the presidency even temporarily. Katzav's seven-year term is due to end this summer. But whether he takes a leave of absence or resigns, it's clear that his political career is over.
Linda Gradstein, NPR News, Jerusalem.
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