Under cloud of scandal, Israeli president decides to skip opening of parliament

Succumbing to intense pressure, President Moshe Katsav on Monday canceled his attendance at the opening ceremony of the winter session of parliament after police recommended he be indicted on rape charges.

Katsav's brother, Lior, said the president would stay home to protect the dignity of the Knesset, or parliament. In his largely symbolic post, Katsav had been expected to preside over the ceremony.

"There are apparently some members of Knesset who want to hover like vultures over carcasses and create provocations and to harm the image of the Knesset and symbols of power in Israel," Lior Katsav told Army Radio. "The president will not be part of this charade."

Several lawmakers, including all members of the liberal Meretz party, had threatened to boycott Monday's parliamentary ceremony if Katsav attended.

Police on Sunday recommended that Katsav be indicted for rape, aggravated sexual assault and other counts, wrapping up a months-long investigation into complaints by women who worked for him. Katsav has denied any wrongdoing.

Attorney General Meni Mazuz must make the final decision on whether to indict. Although a decision is likely weeks away, calls on Katsav to suspend himself or resign are growing.

Katsav's lawyer, Zion Amir, said his client has no plans to step down, though a formal indictment would "be a turning point that the president will have to take into consideration."

While Israel has a long history of political scandals, the charges that Katsav could face would be the most serious criminal counts ever brought against a serving official. In the past, a previous president and several prime ministers were suspected of financial misdeeds, and a former defense minister as convicted of sexual harassment, reports AP.

In a statement released Sunday, police said the recommendations were based on complaints filed by "women who worked under his (Katsav's) authority."

It said there was evidence he committed crimes of "rape, aggravated sexual assault, indecent acts without permission and offenses under the law to prevent sexual harassment."

Police also said the found the basis for charges of fraud and malfeasance, as well as illegal wiretapping. Investigations that Katsav disrupted a police investigation and harassed a witness are still in progress.