Israeli cabinet minister accused of sexual harassment

JERUSALEM — A senior member of the Israeli government announced this week that he is taking a leave of absence while police investigate allegations he sexually harassed a female employee in his office.

"These things never happened," Transportation Minister Yitzhak Mordechai said in a statement Tuesday, adding he is taking the leave so the police can conduct an "effective investigation to reach the truth."

The Israeli daily Yediot Achronot broke the story Tuesday, when the Knesset held a special session to mark International Women's Day.

The newspaper report, which did not name the minister, said the alleged harassment began several months ago.

Within hours, several Israeli Internet sites were naming Mordechai.

The 23-year-old employee, whose name was not released, alleged she was sexually harassed on more than one occasion.

On Jan. 18, she claims that he got up from his chair and hugged her. On Feb. 18, Mordechai allegedly asked the woman to give him a hug before he left the office. On Feb. 25, he allegedly grabbed the woman and pulled her to a sofa and stroked her hair and face.

Also on Feb. 25, Mordechai allegedly put his hand under her shirt, kissed her on her neck and hugged her waist.

She also claims that later the same day he called her on the telephone and asked her to keep the incident a secret.

Two weeks ago, the woman took a leave of absence and sought advice from Knesset Speaker Avraham Burg and Knesset member Zahava Gal-On of Meretz on how to deal with the situation.

Burg said he and Gal-On urged the worker to file a complaint with the police, which she did on Monday.

The woman has passed two lie-detector tests administered by police.

On Tuesday night, Channel 1 reported that, since that morning's revelations, several other women had come forward, alleging Mordechai had also sexually harassed them. Some of these alleged cases took place before Mordechai's present term as minister.

Before leaving his office, Mordechai said that this is a very tough time for himself, his family and friends.

"A man wakes up in the morning to find his entire existence turned upside down," he said. "In the end, the truth will win, and that is something in which I believe."

Mordechai is taking the leave as Prime Minister Ehud Barak is trying to assemble support in his divisive coalition and in the Knesset for his peace moves with the Palestinians and Syria.

A former general, Mordechai is considered a political moderate. He has been serving on a recently formed committee, along with Barak and Foreign Minister David Levy, to decide on the scope of Israel's response to Hezbollah attacks in southern Lebanon.

Mordechai served as defense minister in the previous Likud-led government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. He resigned in January 1999 over disagreements with Netanyahu.

In last year's elections, Mordechai ran for prime minister as head of the then newly formed Center Party. On the eve of the elections, he pulled out of the race and endorsed Barak.

Barak said it is important to ensure that women won't be afraid to complain about any kind of harassment or assault committed by any kind of person.

"It is forbidden to act leniently in cases that are mistakenly thought of as not serious," Barak said. "We must stop this epidemic by vigorous enforcement of the law and fitting and suitable punishment."