All in Favor / The High Price of Keeping in Touch

Moshe Katsav's trial, due to open today, has revived a debate in the Knesset over the benefits he is due as a former president.

An ex-president is usually entitled to state funding to the tune of NIS 1.1 million a year. This money is meant to finance an apartment, subsidize his household expenses, rent and furnish an office of up to 140 square meters, pay for a Volvo and a driver, cover hospitality expenses of up to NIS 1,000 a month, pay salaries to two or three aides, finance a regular and cellular telephone line, and cover medical expenses for himself and his wife for the rest of their lives. In addition, and independently, Katsav is entitled to a pension from the state of NIS 48,000 a month.

The 2008 state budget currently contains this NIS 1.1 million allocation to Katsav. However, in response to a TheMarker's 2006 report that Katsav would enjoy all these benefits even if convicted, the Knesset Finance Committee decided seven months ago to freeze funding for his office and aides. It also decided that none of these benefits (except the pension) should be given to any president convicted of a crime involving moral turpitude. However, for security reasons, it agreed that funding for a car, driver and security guards would be provided even to convicted presidents.

The committee's decision was made before Attorney General Menachem Mazuz signed a plea bargain with Katsav that accuses him only of minor sexual offenses. At that time, Katsav was suspected of serious sexual offenses, including rape, which surely involved moral turpitude. The MKs never imagined that he might be convicted without a finding of turpitude.

MK Chaim Oron (Meretz), who chairs the Knesset Ethics Committee, said yesterday that the court ought to find Katsav guilty of moral turpitude. He objects to a possible compromise under which Katsav would waive his benefits in exchange for not being convicted of turpitude.

"In principle, he should be slapped with turpitude, because of the crimes attributed to him," Oron said. "Moreover, there is no reason why the state should pay more than NIS 1 million a year to Katsav for the sake of keeping in touch with the public. I see no reason for keeping in touch with the public at the public's expense."

Oron was furious at last month's threat by Katsav's attorneys to withdraw from the plea bargain if Mazuz insisted on turpitude. He said he would be perfectly happy for the case to go to trial with the original indictment, which included rape charges, and expressed hope that Mazuz would stick to his guns on the turpitude issue.

However, if Katsav gets off without a turpitude finding, Oron believes that the Knesset Finance Committee could reopen the discussion on the former president's benefits. The real moral turpitude, said several MKs yesterday, would be for the state to finance an office and aides for a disgraced ex-president in order to enable him to stay in touch with the public.