Katsav's Volte-farce

It began as a farce, as a news event that even the satirical television show Eretz Nehederet ("A Wonderful Country") at its best couldn't have topped: A tiny courtroom, no bigger than an average housing-project apartment living room; the luxury sedan that lapped the scenic alleyways surrounding the courthouse in which Moshe and Gila Katsav hid; the pregnant, self-satisfied silence of the state's attorneys.

It ended with a dramatic turn, what could be termed a volte-farce. One cannot minimize the great gamble taken by Katsav in court yesterday. He could have put an end to the whole affair, with or without the moral turpitude designation, and returned to Kiryat Malakhi to be forgotten by all. But yesterday he chose a path that could end in prison.

"For 10 years they have been combing my flesh with iron rakes," the former president said yesterday at the Jerusalem courthouse. That's nothing compared to what awaits him and his family when the complainants take the witness stand. Most of their testimony has already been disclosed in media reports, but courthouse testimony is more revealing, more palpable, juicier. Everything will be out in the open. It is the judges who will decide on their credibility. Although Attorney General Menachem Mazuz found holes in some of the complainants' statements, the judges could feel differently. Conversely, they might find reasonable doubt and acquit Katsav. But that take up to two years.

Katsav's decision to reject the hard-fought plea bargain only becomes more enigmatic upon examination. If he is truly convinced of his own innocence, then why sign the plea bargain? If he regretted his decision, why did he wait until yesterday, setting himself and his wife up for the humiliating experience at the courtroom entrance. Maybe the whole thing was a cynical lawyerly finesse from the start, to get the worst of the charges struck and then reject the deal. So far it's worked, but this is just the first act. We're back to square one, and Katsav did confess to certain crimes.

In any event, it's good that there will be a trial, that the charges and the testimony will be heard in court. From the beginning, the plea bargain was suspect. No one understood how serious crimes such as rape were eventually transformed into a brush of the hand, a fatherly pat. It's not for nothing that Supreme Court President Justice Dorit Beinisch noted that the charges against Haim Ramon were harsher than those against Katsav.

Katsav's decision to go to trial shows that he has not only long arms but deep pockets, too. Experts says the cost of such a trial can reach $1 million. Katsav is a private citizen who owes a financial accounting to no one. But it should be remembered that as a former president the state continues to fund him and wrap him in perks worth about NIS 1 million a year: an office, secretarial services, a car and driver, hospitality and housing. Perhaps one day he will decide to disclose his funding sources.