Middle East
Profile: Moshe Katsav
Former president was the first Israeli head of state born in a Muslim country.
Last Modified: 08 Mar 2009 17:00 GMT

Katsav has fiercely denied all 
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 words one would use of Katsav now as he prepares to face rape and sexual assault charges.

Katsav stepped down from the presidency just weeks before his seven-year term officially ended as part of a plea deal that would have seen him avoid the most serious charges.

However, when he appeared in court he reneged on the deal and refused to plead guilty to the lesser charges.

Katsav had refused to resign for months, despite enormous public pressure, strenuously professing his innocence.

It was an ignominious end to a political career that saw the father of five 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.

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 Benyamin Netanyahu.

Head of state

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 Peres, the former prime minister, in the 2000 election.

Katsav's presidency 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 Israeli prime minister.

Nevertheless he 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.

The fluent Farsi speaker has been married to Gila since 1969.

Al Jazeera and agencies
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