Katsav fiercely denies
the allegations against him [AFP]
While running for the largely ceremonial post of Israeli president in 2000, Moshe Katsav was chided by the Israeli media and other observers for being a bland and mild-mannered character.

Those would not be the first two words one would use of Katsav as he angrily denied allegations of rape and abuse of power in a speech to reporters on Wednesday.

The president has told parliament he will take leave of absence to contest the allegations and would step down if formally charged.

Politicians including Ehud Olmert, the prime minister, have urged Katsav, a former cabinet minister, to step down before his tenure ends in July.

Were the married father of five to do so it would prove an ignominious end to a political career that saw him rise from an impoverished childhood through the ranks to become Israel's first conservative head of state and the first born in a Muslim country.

Unlike some of Israel's political elite Katsav had a tough childhood after being born in the city of Yazd in central Iran in December 1945.

He moved to Israel with his parents and seven siblings in 1951 and resided in the Kiryat Malachi tent camp for new arrivals south of Tel Aviv.

Rapid rise

He became the first local resident to attend Israel's Hebrew University and in 1969 became the country's youngest mayor when elected to the post in Kiryat Malachi at the age of 24.

In 1977, Katsav joined the Knesset, the Israeli parliament, and became an integral member of the right-wing Likud party rising to serve as parliamentary chairman of Likud in the mid-1990s and serving as tourism minister and deputy prime minister in the government of Benjamin Netanyahu.

Despite serving under relatively hawkish Likud governments Katsav became more of a moderate after becoming head of state.

He achieved that, surprisingly, by defeating his more left-wing rival and favourite Shimon Pires, the former prime minister, in the 2000 election to win a renewable seven-year term that leaves him immune from prosecution unless he is impeached or leaves office.

Diplomat

His presidency has coincided with a difficult period for Israel. He offered to hold talks with Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian president, and insisted the late Yasser Arafat had a role to play in the peace process at a time when the former Palestinian leader was spurned by Ariel Sharon, the then prime minister.

Nevertheless he has also used his presidency to play the protocol card abroad, making Israel's "right to self-defence" and warnings of rising anti-Semitism a constant theme of foreign trips.

Katsav was the first Israeli head of state to visit Austria, once annexed by Adolf Hitler as part of Nazi Germany, and Croatia, where an estimated 75 per cent of its 40,000 Jews were killed during the Holocaust.

If the rape allegations do lead to the political demise of Katsav he will be the second successive president to leave office with his reputation tainted.

His predecessor, Ezer Weizman, resigned from the post following revelations he had received $450,000 in gifts from a French millionaire.

Katsav, a fluent Farsi speaker, has been married to Gila since 1969 and is the father of five children and grandfather of two.

Source: Al Jazeera and agencies