JERUSALEM - An Israeli parliamentary panel yesterday approved a request by President Moshe Katsav that he be suspended from duties after prosecutors drafted an indictment against him for alleged rape and other sexual misconduct.
The Knesset house committee voted 13-11 to declare Katsav "temporarily incapacitated" while attorney-general Menachem Mazuz decides whether to order a trial.
Katsav angrily denied the accusations against him at a press conference on Wednesday, saying he would suspend himself - but not resign - from the largely ceremonial post.
"The law does not oblige me to resign," a visibly heated Katsav said. "I will not give in to blackmail."
The move allows Katsav, facing the most serious charges ever levelled against an Israeli leader, to retain his presidential immunity from prosecution unless he formally renounces it.
Parliament's house committee was meeting yesterday to consider whether to approve the leave of absence, with a majority of its 25 members needed to pass the measure.
If it does so, parliamentary speaker Dalia Itzik would assume Katsav's functions, becoming Israel's first woman president.
If the committee rejects Katsav's request, he would remain in his post officially, increasing pressure either for him to resign or for parliament to impeach him.
Thirty lawmakers have already signed a petition to start impeachment proceedings against the 61-year-old president, whose seven-year term of office expires later this year.
An impeachment process, unprecedented in the history of the Jewish state, requires the support of 90 lawmakers in the 120-member Knesset.
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert - himself facing a criminal corruption probe - added his voice to the growing chorus calling on the Iranian- born Katsav to resign.
"There is no doubt in my heart that the president cannot continue in his functions and he will have to leave the presidency," said Olmert.
Opinion polls released yesterday showed between 66 percent and 71 percent of Israelis want Katsav - the Jewish state's first president from a right-wing party - to resign over the scandal.
After a six-month investigation, attorney-general Menachem Mazuz said on Tuesday that he intends to indict the married father of five on a slew of charges, including raping a female employee when he was tourism minister, sexual harassment, abuse of power, breach of trust and accepting bribes.
Bitter and combative, Katsav repeatedly maintained his innocence at Wednesday's press conference as his tearful wife and children looked on.
"I will not hang my head and I will defend my honour," he said, before tearing into his accusers.
"They attacked me because I refused to hire them at the presidency. And now they are taking their revenge against me.
"I was the victim of a shameful plot, a brainwashing by the media," he vented.
"I was the victim of a witch-hunt . and the police followed the media." - Reuters and Sapa-AFP