Ex-Israeli justice minister convicted

TEL AVIV, Israel — An Israeli court convicted former Justice Minister Haim Ramon on Wednesday of forcibly kissing a young female soldier, a stunning censure of a top official that could reshape the Israeli Cabinet. Ramon, who faces up to three years in prison, joined a growing list of politicians who have fallen from grace — including Israel’s president, who is facing rape charges.

The 56-year-old Ramon was charged with sexual misconduct after kissing the 21-year-old woman at a party at the Defense Ministry on the first day of Israel’s war with Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon last summer. Ramon, who is divorced, said the woman, who cannot be identified under Israeli law, had flirted with him and the kiss was consensual.

With its salacious details and high-profile defendant, the case captured the nation’s attention for months, and Ramon’s conviction sent a stark message to high officials that behavior once considered a perk of the job would no longer be tolerated.

“There are some lines that cannot be crossed,” said Judge Hayuta Kochan, who read the unanimous verdict by a three-judge panel. “This was not a kiss of affection. This has all the elements of sexual crime.”

Ramon, who will be sentenced Feb. 21, said he would appeal.

A close ally of veteran statesman Shimon Peres, Ramon once appeared to be on the fast track toward the premiership, serving as minister in several Cabinets. He bolted the dovish Labor Party ahead of elections last year and joined Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s Kadima Party, serving as justice minister until he was charged last August.

In a statement, Olmert “expressed sorrow” at Ramon’s conviction.

Ahead of the verdict, hordes of reporters and TV cameras swarmed around Ramon as he pushed toward the small courtroom at the Tel Aviv Magistrates Court.

As the verdict was read, a visibly anxious Ramon held his head in his hands. His girlfriend hugged him in support.

The verdict said Ramon’s defense was full of contradictions, and said it was obvious the young soldier was “authentic and trustworthy” and had suffered a “traumatic experience.”

“We completely endorse the plaintiff’s version,” it said.

Ramon declined to comment on the verdict.

His accuser, in an interview with Israel’s Channel 10, denied ever flirting with him.

“You understand the gap between us? He’s eight years older than my father. There is no chance I could look at him and say that I would go out with him, that I could hit on him,” she said, her face hidden in shadows. “Who would ever think such a thing?”

The conviction will force changes in the Cabinet. Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni has also been serving as justice minister while the government awaited a verdict.

Olmert’s spokeswoman, Miri Eisin, said Olmert would fill the job, as well as the vacant welfare minister’s post, “in the near future.”

Ramon’s permanent replacement is expected to be Interior Minister Ronnie Bar-On, of Kadima. The hard-line Yisrael Beiteinu party is also likely to be given a second Cabinet seat, political analyst Hanan Crystal said.

But unpopular Defense Minister Amir Peretz is likely to keep his job until the government commission investigating the war in Lebanon releases its findings, which might implicate Peretz and force him to step aside, Crystal said. No date has been given for the commission’s report.

The Ramon conviction came amid a spate of scandals involving Israeli leaders. Last week, Israel’s attorney general said he plans to indict President Moshe Katsav on charges of raping and sexually assaulting former female employees. Katsav has taken a leave of absence.

Authorities also have launched a criminal investigation into Olmert’s role in the government’s sale of a controlling interest in a bank in 2005, when he was finance minister. Investigators suspect Olmert tried to steer the bidding in favor of a supporter.

Tzachi Hanegbi, another Kadima member, has been indicted on charges of fraud, bribery and perjury in connection with appointments he made as a minister.

Legal analyst Moshe Goraly said the actions taken against top officials stood in stark contrast with the hands-off attitude government watchdogs and prosecutors previously took toward politicians.

Given the relatively minor charge in Ramon’s case — and the way his credibility was “completely destroyed” — the verdict could be a sign of trouble for his accused colleagues, Goraly said.

“It does not bode well for all the others,” he said.