JERUSALEM — Israel's Supreme Court on Thursday upheld the rape conviction of former President Moshe Katsav and ordered him to begin serving a seven-year prison term next month, a landmark decision that culminated a sordid five-year saga.
The rape conviction for the former head of state was hailed as a victory for women's rights and equality under the law, particularly at a sensitive time when Israel's liberal democracy has come under assault from extreme nationalists and the burgeoning ultra-religious minority.
"From this day on, let nobody dare claim that these are women who tried to conspire against the president. Rather they are brave women who must empower all harassed women who are afraid to complain," said Tzipi Livni, Israel's opposition leader and the nation's most prominent female politician.
It also completed the tragic ending for a man whose rag-to-riches story had served as a symbol of success for Mizrahi Jews, those of Middle Eastern descent who for decades were an underclass in Israel. Ordered to report to prison on Dec. 7, Katsav becomes the highest-ranking Israeli official to serve time.
The Iranian-born Katsav, 65, was convicted last December of raping a former employee when he was a Cabinet minister and of sexually harassing two other women during his term as president from 2000 to 2007. He received a seven-year prison sentence in March, but remained free pending his appeal.
Katsav has vociferously professed his innocence since the accusations against him first emerged five years ago, claiming he was the victim of a political witchhunt. And the case against him depended entirely on testimony, fueling a debate in Israel on the difficulties of prosecuting sex crimes.
But in a decisive ruling Thursday, the judges said his testimony had not been credible and accused him of exploiting his status as a high public official.
The former president "fell from the loftiest heights to the deepest depths," Judge Salim Joubran told the hushed court. "Such a senior official should be a role model to his subordinates. Every woman has a right to her own body. A right to dignity. A right to freedom. No one has the liberty to take any of those from her."
Katsav sat stone-faced throughout the session, briefly smiling wryly as it became clear his appeal was being rejected.
Katsav's attorney, Avigdor Feldman, faulted the judges for believing the rape victim despite serious holes in her testimony. "They would have believed her if she said the rape occurred on Venus," Feldman said.
Noya Rimalt, an expert on criminal law and feminist legal theory at Haifa University, said the prosecution prevailed in because of strong witness testimony. "Different women who didn't know each other told similar stories about the way he treated female subordinates. That is what the conviction was based on," she said.
Israel's presidency is a largely ceremonial office, typically filled by a respected elder statesman expected to rise above politics and serve as a moral compass.
The case against Katsav, which broke in 2006 after he told police one of his accusers was trying to extort money from him, shocked Israelis by portraying a man widely seen as a bland functionary as a predatory boss who repeatedly used authority to force sexual favors.
Katsav reluctantly resigned two weeks before his seven-year term was to expire in 2007 under a plea bargain that would have allowed him to escape jail time.
He was replaced by Nobel peace laureate and former prime minister Shimon Peres, whom he had bested in the 2000 presidential race, decided by parliament. But he then rejected the plea bargain, vowing to prove his innocence in court.
The lurid details of the case riveted Israelis. In one memorable moment, Katsav held a news conference in which he accused prosecutors and the media of plotting his demise because he didn't belong to the European-descended elite.
The Iranian-born Katsav moved to Israel as a child, spent time in an immigrant tent camp and grew up in the impoverished southern development town of Kiryat Malachi. Katsav became mayor of the town at the age of 24, and continues to live there.
Prosecutors and women's rights groups proclaimed the verdict a victory in a decades-long struggle to chip away at the nation's macho culture, which once permitted political and military leaders great liberties.
Yet observers noted the country – torn between a generally liberal judiciary, conservative religious currents and lingering gaps between men and women in the workplace – still has a long way to go.
Particularly in Jerusalem, Jewish ultra-Orthodox have tried to impose their social mores on the city. Posters depicting women are a rarity, and advertisers freely admit that they expect billboards with women's faces to be defaced or destroyed by religious vandals. Some buses and health clinics have been gender-separated, and recently, women were shunted onto separate sidewalks in one neighborhood.
In the military, traditionally an important melting pot, officials have considered reassigning some female combat soldiers because religious men don't want to serve with them.
Naomi Chazan, a leading women's rights advocate, called the Katsav ruling a "great victory," but said the issue of gender equality is an "ongoing struggle."
Chazan, president of the New Israel Fund, which supports progressive causes in Israel, pointed to "the ultrareligious extremists who are bent on imposing a very gender-segregated approach" on the public.
"That's the duality of Israeli society: a very liberal strain and a very retrogressive strain," she said.