When former Justice minister Haim Ramon was convicted of sexual misconduct four months ago after kissing a young army officer against her will, it seemed that Israel was changing the whole way its legal system handles sexual harassment. The judges ruled in a biting verdict that Ramon's kiss contained all the elements of a sex offense.
Instead of quashing the affair or ending it with a plea bargain that would have been an embarrassment, Ramon was forced to defend himself in court, wait tensely for the verdict and bear the punishment, all because of one single unnecessary kiss.
The verdict aroused a storm of public debate, for and against, but it seemed clear that the legal system had set a new threshold in its treatment of sexual crimes, mainly by public personalities: no slaps on the wrist. Even the perpetrator of the least of offenses would be forced to prove his innocence in court.
This morning Attorney general Meni Mazuz proved that isn't so. Israel's president, suspected of nothing less than rape, was allowed to enter a plea bargain. His alleged rape of A., his underling at the Tourism Ministry, was bargained down to an unsolicited kiss. His treatment of another complainant, L., was handled in much the same way. No charges will be pressed regarding the alleged rape of another A., who worked at the President's Residence and who was the first woman to complain. Charges in respect to other women also disappeared.
Mazuz tried to damp down the fires, saying that the president will be taking responsibility in the plea bargain, and the agreed-on punishment is a suspended sentence and financial compensation. Katsav is also to formally resign as an act of accepting responsibility personally and at the public level, Mazuz said.
That's it. Katsav will not be tried, will not be forced to prove that he committed no rape. He won't have to wait tensely for the outcome of a trial. All he'll have to do is resign, a symbolic and empty act considering that he's not functioning as president anyway, and compensate the victims.
Mazuz tried to explain: "In our view the plea bargain achieves the main purpose of the investigation - exposing the incidents that hadn't been handled." Really - it was the media that exposed the incidents. That is the media's job. It is the legal system's job to apply the letter of the law, not to handle public relations.
The attorney general also tried to argue that the plea bargain contains an important public message: "We know it is very difficult for the victims of sexual crimes to complain and any investigation that ends in a conviction is an important message for women, not to be afraid and to complain, even if it involves a not-small personal price."
But he's wrong. At the end of the day Katsav is going free, the most serious charge - rape - was dismissed, and that's the message that the women are hearing.
Mazus also argued that sparing Katsav a trial minimizes the damage to the institution of the presidency. Really? The institution of the presidency was dealt a mortal blow by Katsav. A decision to try him wouldn't have exacerbated the damage: it would have demonstrated that our legal system works.