TEL AVIV, Israel - An Israeli court convicted former Justice Minister Haim Ramon yesterday of forcibly kissing a female soldier, a stunning censure of a top official that could reshape the Israeli cabinet.
Ramon, who faces up to three years in prison, joined a growing list of politicians who have fallen from grace - including Israel's president, who is facing rape charges.
Ramon, 56, was charged with sexual misconduct after kissing the 21-year-old at a party at the Defense Ministry on the first day of Israel's war with Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon last summer. Ramon, who is divorced, said that the woman, who cannot be identified under Israeli law, had flirted with him and that the kiss was consensual.
With its salacious details and high-profile defendant, the case captured the nation's attention for months, and Ramon's conviction sent a stark message to high-level officials that behavior once considered a perk of the job would no longer be tolerated.
"There are some lines that cannot be crossed," said Judge Hayuta Kochan, who read the unanimous verdict by a three-judge panel. "This was not a kiss of affection. This has all the elements of sexual crime."
Ramon, who will be sentenced Feb. 21, said he would appeal.
A close ally of veteran statesman Shimon Peres, Ramon once appeared to be on the fast track toward the premiership, serving as minister in several cabinets. He bolted the Labor Party ahead of elections last year and joined Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's Kadima party, serving as justice minister until he was charged in August.
The verdict said Ramon's defense was full of contradictions, and said it was obvious the young soldier was "authentic and trustworthy" and had suffered a "traumatic experience."
"We completely endorse the plaintiff's version," it said.
Ramon declined to comment on the verdict.
The conviction will force changes in the cabinet. Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni has also been serving as justice minister while the government awaited a verdict.
Olmert's spokeswoman, Miri Eisin, said Olmert would fill the job, as well as the vacant welfare minister's post, "in the near future."
Ramon's permanent replacement is expected to be Interior Minister Ronnie Bar-On, of Kadima. The Yisrael Beiteinu party is also likely to be given a second cabinet seat, political analyst Hanan Crystal said.
But unpopular Defense Minister Amir Peretz is likely to keep his job until the government commission investigating the war in Lebanon releases its findings, which might implicate Peretz and force him to step aside, Crystal said.