Disgraced former president Moshe Katsav was released on parole on Wednesday after serving five years of a seven-year jail sentence for rape, in a case that stirred deep emotions in Israel and touched off a national debate on sexual harassment.

Katsav, 71, had been turned down for early release twice after refusing to meet the parole board's demands to recognize his crimes and express regret for them. The board said he had finally come to regret his actions and the pain they had caused.

After serving as president, a largely ceremonial role, from 2000 to 2007, Katsav was convicted in December 2010 of raping an aide while he was a cabinet minister in the 1990s and of sexually harassing two other women during his time as head of state. Katsav, who denied the charges, was jailed in 2011.

His release from a prison near Tel Aviv on Wednesday was broadcast live on Israel's main television channels. Smiling and walking with his wife, Gila, he made his way through a scrum of photographers to a waiting car and sped away without speaking.

In its decision on Sunday, the board wrote that since the first failed hearing, Katsav had "traveled a long path, had benefited from prison therapy services and had recognized and regretted his actions against the women and the pain he had caused them".

The first criminal conviction of an Israeli president was dubbed an "earthquake" by the Israeli media and was welcomed by women's groups, which have long complained of lax attitudes to sexual harassment in workplaces.

There was little public outcry over the early release of the white-haired Katsav, who had already served more than two thirds of his sentence, a point when many prisoners are granted parole.