For Neighbors, Embattled Katsav Can Do No Wrong

Kiryat Malakhi denizens defend city's famous son.

The streets of Kiryat Malakhi are abuzz with talk of what will happen when their most high-profile resident, former President Moshe Katsav, is sentenced in a sex crimes case tomorrow - and Katsav's neighbors all seem to be crossing their collective fingers.

"He didn't rape anyone," Haim Yona, the owner of a local hair salon, said yesterday. "Everything was consensual. Anyone who knows the Katsav family and the former president knows that in his personality he's nowhere near being a rapist. The residents of Kiryat Malakhi love Katsav and respect him to this day. This is a good man who comes from a family that does nothing but contribute to the town."

The vehement support for Katsav was representative of several local residents who spoke about the case yesterday. Though the details of the trial have been kept under wraps, the case was extensively covered in the media when the accusations first came to light in 2006.

Katsav is accused of two counts of rape, indecent behavior and sexual harassment. He is also accused of harassing a witness and obstructing justice.

"Apparently there was something between the two of them, but from there to rape is a big leap," said one resident, apparently referring to the former employee whose complaint led to the rape charges. The case is also based on the complaints of two other women.

The former president cuts a familiar figure in town, where some residents see him nearly every day and can recite his daily routine: He goes to synagogue every morning, works out at the gym at around 10 A.M., takes a walk around town in the afternoon - and says hello to just about everyone he encounters.

Like Yona, some residents mentioned Katsav's ties to their low-income southern town in their paeans in his defense.

"The Katsav family has brought honor to Kiryat Malakhi over the years," said a resident holding court in a cafe who asked that his name not be published. "We know Moshe. It's inconceivable that the man would rape anyone."

"On Thursday the cloud will be lifted and anyone who wished him ill will eat his hat," he said.

Another local man said the residents couldn't understand what Israelis want from the former president.

"The entire town is talking about the trial," he said. "Every time journalists come here we know right away that they came to talk about Katsav. I don't understand what you want from him. ... We all believe in him and hope, for his sake and his family's sake, that their nightmare will end."

Meanwhile, others see conspiracy theories.

"Maybe someone set him up," said Kiryat Malakhi resident Jackie Levy. "Once he said in an interview that he wants to be prime minister. It could be that that bothered somebody."