A hawk-turned-dove wins Israeli presidency

March 25, 1993|By New York Times News Service

JERUSALEM -- Ezer Weizman, a blunt-talking swashbuckle who evolved from a hawkish general into a leading voice for peace with the Arabs, was elected Israel's seventh president by Parliament yesterday.

An embarrassed legislature had to vote twice because the first time, for reasons unclear, it wound up with 124 ballots cast -- four more than its membership.

But in the end, everything came out as expected: Mr. Weizman, 68, a former defense minister and air force commander who had quit politics a year ago, defeated Dov Shilansky, a former speaker of Parliament. The vote was 66-53, with one ballot left blank.

The new president's five-year term will begin May 13, when he succeeds Chaim Herzog, who has held the basically ceremonial, but potentially influential, position for the last decade.

The opposition Likud bloc is holding its nationwide primary today, with Benjamin Netanyahu, a former deputy foreign minister, favored to finish first in a four-man field. The main question seemed to be whether he would win 40 percent of the vote and avoid a runoff.

For Mr. Weizman, victory was the culmination of a personal odyssey. His uncle, Chaim Weizmann, was a founder of the modern state of Israel and its first president. ("My father decided that one 'n' was good enough for us," Ezer Weizman has said, explaining the difference in spelling.)

Although the presidency has no real power, except to pardon criminals, it can be an important forum, and Mr. Weizman, who was a driving force behind the 1978 Camp David peace accords between Israel and Egypt, has hinted that he will use the office as a bully pulpit.

In the past, he called for more rapid strides toward peace with Israel's Arab neighbors and direct negotiations with the Palestine Liberation Organization.

He was said to have talked with the PLO in 1989, when such contacts were illegal, and although he never confirmed or denied it, he was forced out of a left-right unity government that then governed.

While the parliamentary vote yesterday largely reflected party politics, some commentators viewed it as a sign that the Israeli mainstream is prepared for compromises that may lead to peace.

Two questions about the new president were on many minds:

* Whether he will be able to control his often tart, occasionally crude, language in a position regarded in Israel as a unifying force.

* How he would get along with Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who was the Israeli armed forces chief of staff in the 1967 Mideast war. Mr. Weizman was Mr. Rabin's deputy in that campaign.

A decade later, Mr. Weizman revealed that Mr. Rabin had collapsed and disappeared for a day nearly two weeks before the start of the war, which ended with Israel's six-day victory. Relations between the two men now can be most politely described as glacial.

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