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If Prime Minister Ehud Olmert asks Haim Ramon to return to the cabinet, the latter would not be able to refuse, sources close to Ramon said yesterday after the court issued a verdict exonerating him of moral turpitude.

"The depth of their friendship and Ramon's personal commitment to Olmert are such that he won't be able to say no," they said.

Ramon and Olmert agreed to meet after the Pessah holiday to discuss Ramon's political future.

Olmert's associates said Ramon may well be appointed finance minister, should Abraham Hirchson be forced to resign due to the police investigation of his financial dealings.

The Tel Aviv Magistrate's Court yesterday sentenced Ramon to 120 hours of community service and ordered him to pay the victim NIS 15,000 in compensation. He was convicted in January for forcibly kissing a female soldier, who said yesterday she would donate her compensation to a women's rights organization.

The verdict upholding Ramon's conviction, and yet exonerating him of moral turpitude, cleared the way for his return to political life and even to the cabinet.

Attorney General Menachem Mazuz will deliberate with the State Prosecution whether to appeal against the court ruling.

"I think the trial's message has been conveyed to women in the most effective way: It is a woman's right to be in control of her body at all times, even if [the person harassing her is] a powerful person with connections," she said.

The prosecution had asked for a suspended jail sentence for Ramon, while the defense had asked for the court to overturn the former justice minister's conviction and sentence him to community service.

The three-judge panel of Hayuta Kochan, Daniel Beeri and Daniela Cherizli said there were "substantial considerations in the defendant's favor. He is a known Israeli public figure... His public service stands to his credit, and was taken into consideration when we decided his fate." They also took into consideration that he had he lost his public career.

The court ruled that the incident was isolated and did not mark Ramon as a sex offender or indicate a criminal behavior pattern, adding, "It is our impression that it was an unplanned event. We are certain [Ramon] learned his lesson, and will be extra cautious from now on."

The judges castigated Ramon for his insincere statement of regret concerning the victim, noting that throughout the trial, he did everything he could to "slander her and crush her dignity."

However, they ruled that the act, although "in poor taste and callous," was not a crime of moral turpitude.

The judges concluded that Ramon's punishment is his conviction, and therefore his penalty must be minimal, so any future harm will be directly proportional to the nature of the crime and its circumstances.

The prosecution expressed satisfaction that the conviction was upheld. Rafi Levy, a senior prosecutor in the Tel Aviv district, said, "The decision conveys an explicit and bold message - a woman's right over her body is certain and clear."

Justice Minister Daniel Friedmann commended the judges for upholding Haim Ramon's indecent assault conviction, while a coalition of nine prominent women's organizations blasted the ruling.

"I'm pleased Ramon can resume political activity if he so wishes," he said.

But Dr. Dana Pugach, director of the Noga Center for Victims of Crime in the Kiryat Ono Academic College, slammed the court's ruling. "Attempting to save Ramon's career, the court invented a sexual offense without moral turpitude - something that doesn't exist - and conveyed the wrong message to the public by giving Ramon's acts a public and moral seal of approval," she said.

The women's organizations said in a joint statement: "The court bent over backward to exonerate Ramon and return him to political life. The court caved in to pressure and its inexplicable decision proves that when it comes to sex crimes, senior officials mobilize to protect the criminals," their statement said.

Attorney Yiron Festinger, Israel Bar Association's opposition head, called the case "a ridiculous affair with a ridiculous result." Festinger added: "The justice system decided to settle the score with Ramon, and the result is a legal scandal. There was no need to indict in the first place and it's an absurd waste of tax money."