On the Israeli street, a reevaluation

Were I anywhere else in the world, I would probably be unnerved to learn that a man accused of rape and other incidences of sexual assault was living down the street.

But this is Jerusalem, a place where everyone knows everyone, and veterans insist it's more of an extended village than a real city. It happens that I found a lovely apartment here two years ago. It's across the street and only a few doors down from the sprawling President's House, where Israeli President Moshe Katsav is awaiting indictment on charges of rape, abuse of power, obstruction of justice, and fraud.

I am moving soon. But not, to be clear, in relation to the impending charges against Mr. Katsav, who decries the allegations against him as a virtual conspiracy of media, police, and state prosecutors who, he says, have been out to get him from the day he took office.

Rather, I'm moving out because of the construction project under way just outside my window. They're making way for the underground parking garage that will service the luxury building to be built over it – and stealing the quiet of our neighborhood in the process.

Perhaps that is to be expected. There is building and renovating going on throughout the most central neighborhoods of Jerusalem – a city that, like Israeli society itself, is going through its own growing pains.

A little over 100 years ago, Jerusalem had almost nothing beyond its Old City walls. This neighborhood, known as the presidential area, was built with the closest thing to a broad boulevard that the new city has to offer. It is wide and leafy and straddles Talbieh and Rehavia, the upscale West Jerusalem areas that are synonymous with wealth and privilege.

With the prime minister's residence around the block, an address in this neighborhood had a certain cachet.

"I used to be proud to say that the president was my neighbor, but I don't think I could say that now," says Arleen Eidelman, who has been living in this neighborhood since 1978, and had met several of its presidents – but not this one. "There was a certain mind-set back then that you could get away with things, and I think Katsav is still in it."

Mrs. Eidelman, who works at the prestigious Israel Museum a hilltop away, says that she was shocked at the way Katsav used his office Wednesday night to attack the pillars of Israel's establishment.

"He's the president, and these are the institutions of democracy. He's attacking the police, the media, the state prosecutor's office. Without all of that, where are we?"

Throughout the neighborhood, there's a similar feeling of astonishment that the man in the nation's highest office is about to be indicted for such serious offenses. Katsav temporarily suspended himself and says he will resign only if he is formally indicted, but meanwhile, a move is growing in the Knesset, Israel's parliament, to impeach him.

"I don't know if he's guilty or not; they should try him and see. But, in any case, he should resign," says Tamar Perles, a Hebrew teacher who was pushing her infant niece in a stroller and enjoying a splash of January sunshine. "If you ask me, all of them – especially the prime minister – should quit, too. The amount of corruption in this country today is outrageous."

Her friend and colleague, Oz Aloni, says he wasn't sure if there was really more of it or if the public – through the media and the legal system – has just gotten more adept at uncovering it. "I do think a lot of our leaders today lack values," Mr. Aloni says.

But the fact that Katsav is facing charges related to sexual assault is indicative of an Israeli reevaluation of views on such matters.

"I do believe if something like that would have happened in the past, we wouldn't see an indictment. So something has changed here," says Vered Vinitzky-Seroussi, a professor of sociology at Hebrew University. "Since 1998, we have had this sexual- harassment law, which is pretty liberal compared to other countries.

"I'm not sure how many other Western nations would indict their president. You can find many cases of leaders of nations harassing women and getting away with it, so it's a kind of an optimistic moment, that even a president can be brought to trial."

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