Brazen Contempt for the Public

Katsav's demand that he be given all the rights normally granted to former presidents must be examined through a public and ethical prism, not a formal legal prism.

Former president Moshe Katsav wants an office in the tallest building in Tel Aviv, along with a large car, a plump annual pension, a driver and other aides. This man, whose bust in the President's Residence is larger than that of all his predecessors, will not concede a single external symbol that would contribute to glorifying him, even though he cast shame on the institution of the presidency.

Katsav's demand that he be given all the rights normally granted to former presidents must be examined through a public and ethical prism, not a formal legal prism. The benefits that the state grants its presidents after they retire are based on the convention that such benefits reflect the public's appreciation of and gratitude for their work. Some countries provide public funding to build research institutes or libraries that offer a focus for their leaders' post-retirement activities; other countries grant no benefits at all to former presidents. In Israel, the law authorizes the Knesset to decide on the president's salary and "other payments that will be made to him." The house in turn authorized the Knesset Finance Committee to decide these issues, and the latter granted retired presidents substantial benefits for the rest of their lives.

Three years ago, a subcommittee headed by Avraham Shochat decided that these benefits should instead be paid for only seven years. Katsav, whose term was already drawing to a close, demanded that the new rules apply only to his successors and not to himself, so that he could enjoy these benefits for the rest of his life. The committee acquiesced. But after a draft indictment against him was prepared, followed by a draft plea bargain, the Finance Committee approved a proposal by MK Haim Oron under which any president convicted of a crime involving moral turpitude would lose his benefits.

Now that Katsav has withdrawn from the plea bargain, he is demanding that the state grant him his full benefits, which are worth some NIS 1.1 million a year (on top of a monthly pension of NIS 48,000 a month and various other mandatory payments). His associates argue that there is no formal barrier to giving him these benefits, since no court has yet determined that he committed a crime involving moral turpitude.

To that, the proper answer is that Katsav deserves to be punished on the public and ethical level, regardless of the formal criminal proceedings that are pending against him. The public, via its representatives in the Knesset Finance Committee and the Finance Ministry, ought to settle accounts with him over his actions - about which there is no dispute. For years, Katsav forced himself on the young women who worked for him. This pattern of behavior, which he partially admitted to in the plea bargain, is what the High Court of Justice had in mind when it stated that the former president was guilty of "a deep moral failure" and had "damaged the public's trust in the person elected to hold this lofty office."

The state prosecutor and the attorney general are convinced that at the very least, Katsav exploited his superior-subordinate relationships in order to satisfy his sexual urges - even if they are having trouble translating this diagnosis into the language of a serious indictment. Through such behavior, Katsav abused the public's trust and disqualified himself from receiving benefits whose origins, and logic, lie in the public's feelings about the person who symbolizes the state.

These special benefits are given the president by virtue of both his right and his need to continue maintaining contact with the public even after he leaves his job. That is indeed what happens in many cases: Former presidents are invited overseas, maintain contact with Diaspora Jewry and receive the public here in Israel. But this argument does not apply in the case of Katsav: Because he stained his reputation, the public is not expected to beat a path to his door, and it is unreasonable to assume that his public activities as a retiree will justify public financing.

On one hand, Katsav uses the formal argument of the lack of an indictment to demand the extra benefits normally given to retired presidents, while on the other, he is doing everything he can to evade the legal process completely, or at least to drag it out for many years (during which he would receive the benefits).

Only one righteous man is seeking to block this brazen display of contempt toward the public: Oron proposed yesterday that the Finance Committee freeze Katsav's benefits until the end of his trial. If he is not convicted of a crime involving moral turpitude, he would be compensated for the lost benefits retroactively.