- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 25, 2007

TEL AVIV — Ethnic rancor surged in Israel yesterday after President Moshe Katsav, responding to a potential rape indictment, charged that the press conspired to bring him down because he was not part of the European elite establishment.

“What people wanted is for [Mr. Katsav] to serve them. As long as he served the elites, he was OK,” said Charlie Biton, a former leader of the Israeli Black Panthers civil rights movement. “As long he was a rug, and a nice Persian rug for them, he was OK.”

A major fault line in Israeli society separates the upper-class Ashkenazi Israelis of European origin, who dominated the government in Israel’s early years, and the Middle Eastern immigrants known as Sephardi, who became the country’s working class.

Those tensions largely disappeared during the first years of the Palestinian uprising, but have been reawakened by the imminent prosecution of Mr. Katsav, a Sephardic immigrant from Iran.

Mr. Katsav became the first Israeli president from a Middle Eastern working-class background 61/2 years ago, defeating former Prime Minister Shimon Peres. Now Mr. Katsav may become the first such president forced out of office under the cloud of an indictment.

Denying the rape charges in a stormy tirade lasting nearly an hour Wednesday night, Mr. Katsav accused the Israeli press of discrimination because it saw him as a “symbol of all those who aren’t connected to the same elitist clique, with overblown egos who are born with silver spoons in their mouths.”

Yariv Ben Eliezer, a communications lecturer at the Herzliya Interdisciplinary Center, wrote on the Web site of the Yediot Ahronot newspaper group that Mr. Katsav’s attack on the press was a reference to his ethnic origins. “What Katsav was trying to do, with more than just a hint, was to summon the ‘ethnic bogeyman.’ ”

After a hearing with Attorney General Manny Mazoz, Mr. Katsav is likely to be charged with raping a former staffer. It could take Mr. Katsav’s defense team weeks to prepare for the hearing.

A parliamentary committee yesterday approved the president’s request for a leave of absence of several months, though many legislators said the Knesset has a moral obligation dismiss Mr. Katsav without delay.

Parliament is likely to begin debating a vote on dismissal next week. Meanwhile, Knesset Speaker Dalia Itzik became Israel’s acting president, the first woman to fulfill those duties.

Speculation emerged about a successor to Mr. Katsav. The candidates include Mr. Peres of the Kadima party, former Speaker Reuvin Rivlin of the Likud Party and Colette Avital of the Labor Party.

Mr. Katsav’s supporters complained yesterday that police investigations against a long list of Ashkenazi public figures ultimately were closed without indictments.

Mr. Katsav’s Likud Party and the ultra-Orthodox Shas Party have tethered Sephardic bitterness over discrimination during the 1950s and 1960s.

Although Sephardic politicians have risen to power in the past three decades, that bitterness remains among the Israeli working class.

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