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The Silver Lining in the Katsav Cloud

So the verdict, er, that is, the plea bargain, is in. Israel’s now-former president Moshe Katsav, who faced rape charges that could have put him in prison for up to 20 years, has struck a deal, pleading guilty to lesser sexual harassment offenses in exchange for a suspended sentence and having to pay fees to two of the four women—all former employees—who have accused him of sexual abuse. Israelis are up in arms.
But that is a good thing. So say those who want to put a positive spin on the situation.

First, some really good news. As reported by Haaretz, the scandal has raised awareness, and a willingness to talk about, sexual harassment and abuse among Arab women:

The number of Arab women seeking assistance in dealing with sexual assault has risen as a direct result of the intensive media coverage of former president Moshe Katsav’s case, according to the Nazareth-based organization Women against Violence.

A definite, tangible benefit from an otherwise alarming situation.

But more idealistically, the fact that Israelis—not just women but as MK Shelly Yacimovich put it, perhaps hyperbolically, “an entire consensus of the entire public in Israel” [Ynet]—are so upset by the injustice of the deal shows that Israeli society is no longer tolerant, as it traditionally has been, of the philandering of powerful men and their abuse of women.

The same could be said of the recent uproar amongst female politicians in Israel over the Israeli Consul General in New York’s coordinating a photo spread of “Women of the Israeli Defense Forces” in the soft-porn men’s magazine Maxim, featuring hot bikini-clad (and just barely) Israeli women, as a publicity stunt to attract men aged 18-40 to Israel. The fact that women in Israeli put up a fight rather than turning a blind eye or shrugging their shoulders shows that such treatment of women will not be tolerated anymore and that feminist acitivism is alive and well in Israel.

As Education Minister Yuli Tamir said at a rally protesting the as-then impending plea bargain, “Perhaps this is the moment when all of us must tell the Israeli public—enough is enough. Women shall not be hurt, their dignity shall not be humiliated—not through acts, not through touching and not through kisses.”

But the outcry against the Katsav deal is about more than feminism and the women who were wronged. It’s also about injustice in the truest sense, that Katsav did not get his day in court. While Attorney General Menachem Mazuz has given his reasons for the decision not to try Katsav—the most valid being that he did not think the evidence would hold up and that Katsav would thus not be found guilty of the more severe charges—the Israeli people are effectively calling those reasons bullshit.

It seems like more than wanting to see Katsav hanged, they want to see him dragged through the wringer of a trial, to have him go through the system like any other criminal and let the courts decide. As one plaintiff’s attorney, Kinneret Barashti, said at the aforementioned rally, “I am pleased to see that everyone understands that this is not one person’s specific problem, but that this is a democratic state. . . . The case should have been transferred to the court.” [Ynet]

Jerusalem Post columnist Amotz Asa-El picks up on this aspect of the situation, though he comes to it from a different angle. Recalling the way in which Katsav won the presidency against Shimon Peres seven years ago through what he calls “a grand haredi lie,” Asa-El sees Katsav’s fall as a fitting correction to his rise, and a sign of the healthiness of Israeli democracy:

And yet, disgraceful as all this clearly is, and bruising though it is for the Zionist enterprise, it nonetheless survives it. For at the end of the day, the Jewish state—through its media, legal system and non-governmental organizations—has detected an ailment in one of its limbs and treated it.

He turns this scandal into an opportunity for the Israeli public to oust the corrupt forces who put the corrupt Katsav into power in the first place, asking “And if they remained indifferent to Katsav’s abuses of his secretaries, how will they treat other people’s daily abuse by pushers, pimps, loan sharks, bookies, bureaucrats, regulators, inspectors and cops?”

A good question. But if the reaction to the outcome of the Katsav case—the outrage and the willingness to recognize and produce the positive from within it—is any indication, the Israeli public will have a thing or two to say and do about that.

—Rebecca Honig Friedman