JERUSALEM - President Moshe Katsav requested yesterday that he be suspended from official duties pending a final decision by Israel's attorney general on whether to indict him on criminal charges including rape.
Katsav made the request in a letter to Dalia Itzik, the speaker of Israel's parliament, who would assume his largely ceremonial duties. His request was scheduled to be considered today by the parliamentary committee responsible for government oversight.
Attorney General Menachem Mazuz announced Tuesday that there was sufficient evidence to charge Katsav, 61, with rape, sexual assault, obstruction of justice, and abuse of power.
Katsav has denied those allegations, which stem from the accusations of four women who worked for him while he was a cabinet minister in the late 1990s and since he has been president. The president holds little political power in Israel, although he does have the authority to grant pardons and reduce prison sentences.
"I never hurt any man or any woman," Katsav said at an evening news conference, during which he vowed not to resign unless indicted. "I'll fight to prove my innocence."
Katsav moved to suspend himself amid rising calls from parliament that he resign immediately. Mazuz will make a final decision on the charges after a hearing in which Katsav, whose single seven-year term is due to expire in July, will present his defense. If Mazuz proceeds, it would mark the first indictment of an Israeli president.
The president is selected by parliament in a secret ballot and can be tried only if impeached first by parliament. Lawmakers from the Labor and Meretz Parties announced yesterday that they had collected enough signatures from lawmakers to begin the impeachment process.
In a statement calling for his resignation, Justice Minister Tzipi Livni said: "From a legal standpoint, Moshe Katsav the individual enjoys the presumption of innocence.
"However, in this case, given the nature of the accusations, their severity and the timing of the decision, it is more appropriate for him to conduct the fight for his innocence not from inside the residence of the presidents of Israel," said Livni, a former member of the Likud Party, Katsav's political home throughout a career that has spanned three decades.
Livni, also a vice prime minister and the foreign minister, is among the most powerful members of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's government, which is itself buffeted by criminal allegations. Last week, Mazuz opened an investigation into whether Olmert, as finance minister, sought to influence the privatization of an Israeli bank to benefit a friend.
This month, the head of the Israel Tax Authority, Jackie Matza, was arrested along with Olmert's chief of staff, Shula Zaken, in a wide-ranging bribery investigation. Matza and Zaken have denied the allegations, which authorities said do not involve Olmert.
Haim Ramon resigned last year as Olmert's justice minister after being accused by a soldier of kissing her against her will. He is contesting the charge in a trial.
Before Katsav's request for temporary "incapacitation," as the Israeli government refers to a suspension from official duties, Public Security Minister Avi Dichter warned the president not to "hide behind incapacitation."