In a hotel room in Tel Aviv, a young assistant who worked in the office of Moshe Katsav, the Israeli president, is acting out the moves she claims he made when he raped her.
“I went into his office with a book I needed to put away,” she said. “He was sitting at his desk and there’s a big wall of books behind him. I was reaching up to put the book away when he came up behind me.”
She crosses her hands on her stomach and hunches. You can almost see the big arms trapping her hands under his.
“He was behind me in a kind of hug,” she continued. “It was like my hands were tied. He is not a big person but he is strong. I said: what are you doing?
“I don’t know why I said that. I was shocked. He said, ‘I want you. I want you to love me. Why don’t you love me? I want to have sex with you’. I think I said again: what are you doing?”
Katsav pushed her onto the corner of his desk, she claims. She rises from her chair to demonstrate how her hips were allegedly forced on to the table as he turned her to face him.
“My hands were on the table and his hands were over mine on the table. I’m not weak. [But] I had this feeling I never felt before — you can’t do anything.
“Before I even understood, he opened his belt [she starts unbuckling hers to demonstrate] and he pulled up my skirt. I started saying: I’m leaving, I’m quitting. I was sure that he would stop.”
She draws on a cigarette and grimaces. “Maybe I didn’t struggle enough,” she said. “I was shocked. I was thinking, what if people know, what if I don’t have a job. He penetrated me.” The alleged attack lasted minutes, she said. “One leg was out of my panties and I put it back in. And I pulled them up and I just went out of his office. I took my purse from my desk and I just went.”
She has been seeing a psycho-therapist for six months and says that it has given her a new perspective. “I didn’t shout. But I did say no, strongly. I know I did. I said: don’t touch me.” Afterwards, she says, he warned her: “Don’t tell anyone.”
She went to a public garden nearby and sat for hours, she says, smoking one cigarette after another before taking a taxi home. It was sunny but windy. “I was thinking, why me? What did I do wrong? Did I do something wrong? I saw my life ruined in just one moment.”
Calls to her mobile went unanswered. “I took a shower and went to bed,” she said. “I wanted to wash away his touch. He was all over me.”
The young woman, who bears a resemblance to the actress Michelle Pfeiffer in Chanel tortoiseshell glasses, now divides her life into two parts: before and after the alleged rape.
Before, her interests were simple. She says she loved her job. She had a boyfriend and a car and she socialised when she could outside the long hours of the president’s office.
Now, she shies away from the company of all but good friends. “I don’t listen to music any more, I don’t go shopping. I’m not the same person,” she said last week.
The president vigorously protests his innocence of her allegations, saying that years had gone by before she made them and vowing to fight until his last breath to clear his name. Nevertheless, he is facing indictments not only for rape but also for charges of sexual misconduct against three other women.
The young assistant, who cannot be named by law, is at the centre of a swirl of sexual and financial scandals in the Israeli government that have brought public confidence in the country’s leaders to an all-time low.
Haim Ramon, the justice minister, was forced to step down last summer. Last month he was convicted of committing an indecent act by forcibly kissing a 20-year-old female soldier as he arrived at the prime minister’s office for a meeting on the day when Israel decided to go to war against Hezbollah.
The prime minister himself, Ehud Olmert, faces inquiries into his alleged role in promoting the interests of two friends in the privatisation of a bank and also over claims of corruption in property deals.
However, it is the sex scandal surrounding 61-year-old Katsav that is gripping the nation.
In a speech broadcast live on Israeli television, he claimed that there was a conspiracy against him by the police, the prosecutors and the media. Then he got into a shouting match with a Channel 2 correspondent who had tried to ask him a question.
Katsav’s duties as president are largely ceremonial but he is a symbol of the nation. He beat Shimon Peres, the nation’s elder statesman, to the post in 2000 although he had held only second-rank posts in successive governments of the right-wing party Likud. One newspaper said that he “rose simply by being too dull to make enemies”.
Katsav, the first Israeli president from a Muslim country, was born in Yazd, Iran, and came to Israel at the age of six, joining the hundreds of thousands of Jews emigrating after the 1948 war that ended with the foundation of the Jewish state. At a modest bungalow in Kiryat Malachi, he and his wife Gila have raised five children.
The assistant joined Katsav’s staff soon after he became president and did menial work before rising to a more responsible job. She was young, naive, poorly educated and in awe of the president. Looking back, she claims that she can now see that his advances began gradually.
“The president would call me on my private line,” she said. “He would stop by my desk and say, ‘You look pretty’, or ‘I like your skirt’.”
It was flattering to have the attention of such a powerful man, but matters soon became uncomfortable. “He would stand too close or seek out my company too much. I thought, well, it’s only talk. What can I say? I didn’t want to lose my job. My father is not a Rothschild.”
Katsav’s questions became increasingly personal. She once walked out of his office when he asked what she liked to do in bed, she claims, but she says she could not confront him.
Her days grew longer. She would start at 8:30am, meeting the president when he came back from early morning prayers at the synagogue next door. Sometimes she would stay in the office until 11pm at his request.
Katsav, she said, would go upstairs at the end of the working day and return in a tracksuit, asking her to sit and watch the news with him. “I didn’t know if it was part of the job,” she said.
“I was dating someone and it ruined that a lot, because I didn’t have so much time.”
He constantly rang her on her mobile phone, she claims, sometimes starting at 7.30am as she headed into work and finishing late at night.
Sometimes he would discuss colleagues in intimate terms, for instance, telling her that one of them was gay. At other times he berated her for incompetence.
“It made me nervous,” she said. One day, she alleges, he crossed the line of acceptable behaviour. She was sitting in front of his desk taking instructions, when he walked around and stood next to her.
“He said, ‘Stand for a second’. And I don’t know, instinctively I stood up. He put his hand on my breast, like this,” she said, dem-onstrating a cupping motion. “I said: what are you doing? And I froze.”
She left and stayed away for two days. “He kept calling and saying, ‘It’s okay, I’m not going to touch you, if you don’t like it that’s okay’. I was confused. I couldn’t really know what happened. But I started thinking that I need to think about another job.”
Now she believes she should have done precisely that. Just a few weeks later she went into his office to return the book, with all the consequences that she says have changed her life.
She knows it seems suspicious that she walked out for 10 days after the alleged rape and then came back to work for a month before fleeing the country.
She struggles to explain herself, but says she had resolved to put the rape behind her and try to survive in a situation that had overwhelmed her.
Asked why she did not report the rape, she ponders for a moment. Then the words come pouring out.
“I thought, who would believe me? I was scared, ashamed. I didn’t want anyone to know. He was calling and threatening me, saying, ‘Don’t tell anyone. If you do, you will never even work as a waitress again’.
“Then he would call and say, ‘I don’t have an assistant. Where is your professional responsibility?’
“I worked there again knowing I was going to leave,” she said. “I had to prepare my parents, sell my car. I had a life to cut off.” She added: “If nothing bad happened to me like they say, why would I leave my dream job?” She stayed away from Israel for several months. The manner of her return has raised further questions about her account.
She says she contacted Katsav because she needed a reference and in return he asked her to write a letter of appreciation for her time in his office. He then offered to set up three job interviews for her.
“I knew it was not a good solution,” she said. “He could never fix what he did to me, but I thought if he wants to do this little thing, I will accept it. I need a job.”
A confrontation with Katsav followed in his office when he had failed to arrange a single interview after four months: “I was excited. I could have killed him at that moment. It felt like he was still driving into my body.”
By then, she claims, someone – a journalist, she believes – had come into an office where she was on menial duties, offering her $500,000 for her story.
According to her account, she told Katsav about this during their confrontation, which was taped. The exchange culminated in her shouting: “Not even for $2m would I forget what you did to me.”
By now, other claims of sexual misconduct were beginning to circulate and the president approached Menachem Mazuz, the attorney-general, claiming he was being blackmailed.
This prompted a police investigation during which 10 women, including three who had worked at the residence, made allegations against him.
The police said they had enough evidence to indict in four alleged cases, including one of rape and one of “forced sexual intercourse involving abuse of authority”, which is said to apply when the victim did not tell anyone at the time.
The attorney-general is expected to make a final decision on indictments later this year after hearing an appeal from Katsav.
Olmert has urged Katsav to resign and Mazuz ordered him to move out of the official residence. Last month the Knesset, the Israeli parliament, approved his suspension from the presidency for three months.
Katsav spent the time in his bungalow, reading through the black folders in five boxes of testimony taken by the police, preparing his defence. Some of the stories are said to be similar to those of the traumatised young woman I interviewed.
She has no money to pay a lawyer; nor do the other women. But they have found people t o believe in them. One of the mos t prominent is Kinneret Barashi, a lawyer working for one of the main complainants, known a s woman “A”.
“I didn’t know I would be taking on the whole establishment with no budget,” said Barashi, who has practised law for only five years. “It started for me with my belief. My client is my friend and from the moment she told me I knew she wasn’t lying.”
Katsav denies that he touched anyone. Last week he cancelled a promised interview with The Sunday Times at the last moment and sent Lior Katsav, his brother and legal adviser, to put his case.
“The president feels like he is a victim of the media, the police and some of the politicians in Israel,” said Lior Katsav.
“He believes he did not do anything wrong. For six years as president there were no complaints. Why now?”
Lior Katsav clearly believes in his brother: “He feels the damage against him and the office is unbelievable and unjustifiable.”
The two women who had alleged rape were out for revenge, he said; the others had been manipulated by the police. “One, he kissed her on the cheek on her birthday, and she didn’t think anything of it until the police convinced her she had been sexually harassed,” he said.
The young assistant is equally vehement. “It was not a classic rape, where someone grabs you by the hair and drags you into the woods,” she said. “But it is not less hard when you know the person who rapes you.”
She added: “I’m waiting for my day in court. This is my chance. I’m afraid a little bit, but I know I can tell what happened to me and no one can take that away from me. I was there and I know the truth.”
Other Israeli leaders tainted by allegations of sleaze:
- Ehud Olmert, the prime minister, has been accused of corruption in Jerusalem property deals. It is alleged that he received payment for a house above the true market value.
- Omri Sharon, son of Ariel Sharon, the former prime minister. Sentenced to nine months’ jail last year on corruption charges. Between July 1999 and February 2000 he received $1.3m for his father’s campaign to lead the Likud party, far in excess of the permitted limit.
- Tzahi Hanegbi, chairman of the Knesset’s foreign affairs and defence committee. Indicted last year on charges of fraud, bribery, providing false testimony and lying under oath — all related to unlawful appointments he allegedly made while a government minister.
- Ezer Weizman, former president. Received $450,000 in gifts from Edouard Saroussi, the French millionaire, in the 1980s when he was a minister. Public criticism forced his resignation in July 2000. He died in 2005.
- Haim Ramon resigned as justice minister after being charged with sexual misconduct. He was found guilty last month of forcibly kissing a woman soldier.