Israel's president under fire over gifts

Forthright Weizman accepted cash from French businessman

January 12, 2000|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JERUSALEM -- A month ago, President Ezer Weizman seemed destined to cap his illustrious military and political career with the image of a cantankerous but beloved old cuss, Israel's "Give 'em hell Harry."

Now he is fighting to avoid leaving office in shame, the result of the disclosure of secret large cash gifts he received over six years from a French businessman.

There is talk that Shimon Peres, the former Labor prime minister whose roots also go back to the beginning of the Jewish state, might be picked to take Weizman's place.

Weizman, 75, denies any wrongdoing and might not have broken Israeli law, even though he never paid taxes on the money. He turned over documents on the gifts yesterday to the office of Israel's attorney general and has vowed not to make any decision about his future until after a legal determination is made. Disputing reports in the news media that the gifts totaled $453,000, he put the total at $284,000.

But the legal issues have become almost beside the point.

"My view is he will have to resign," said David Horovitz, editor of the biweekly newsmagazine Jerusalem Report. "In a climate of mistrust of public figures, his admission that he accepted a large sum of money exposes him to a degree that is not tolerable for a president."

Israel's president is largely a ceremonial figurehead, but the high-profile office is nonetheless prized and respected.

"Its whole purpose is to be above the inevitable compromises of politics, to be pure, outside the public debate, unifying, positive and symbolic of the public good," said Horovitz. If the president turns out to behave like a regular politician, he asks, "who needs the presidency?"

If Weizman succumbs to the mounting pressure to quit, it would mark the fall of a populist politician who has transformed the straitjacketed office he holds by defying convention to speak out on whatever moves him, unapologetically insulting politicians and interest groups.

`A natural leader'

Born into the small Jewish elite in pre-state Palestine, Weizman has been in the limelight most of his life. He is the nephew of Israel's first president, Chaim Weizmann.

After serving in Britain's Royal Air Force during World War II, he joined Israel's War of Independence as one of the infant nation's few well-trained pilots. He stayed on to help turn a fledgling 25-plane air force into a fearsome machine that two decades later was ready to defeat surrounding Arab states.

"Above all, the air force, magnificently trained under General Ezer Weizman, was set to launch one of the most brilliant pre-emptive strikes in modern military history," American University Professor Amos Perlmutter wrote of the period leading to the Six-Day War of 1967. By then, Weizman had risen to air force commander and then to deputy chief of staff, filling in for ailing chief Yitzhak Rabin as the war opened.

"He's a natural leader," said Mordechai Hod, a flier who trained under Weizman, served with him and succeeded him as air force commander. "He was a fighter, a leader, commander, and he was a friend."

Weizman entered politics on the Israeli right, joining Menachem Begin's Likud bloc and serving briefly as transport minister before Likud withdrew from the government. After seven years in business, Weizman returned to head Likud's successful election campaign in 1976.

Weizman became defense minister in Begin's new government, which signed the Camp David peace accords with Egypt, then resigned in 1980, complaining that Begin wasn't advancing the peace process.

Four years later, he ran for the Knesset as head of his own small party, Yahad, which he later merged with the left-of-center Labor Party. He again joined the Cabinet and remained in government until 1992.

Veering from the political right to the left is no shock coming from someone of Weizman's independent stripe who combines a pursuit of fixed ideas with a sense of the public mood.

Since Camp David, he has more often than not championed the peace process. An early advocate of direct negotiations with Yasser Arafat's Palestine Liberation Organization, Weizman was forced out of government in 1992 after a reported clandestine contact with the PLO.

Recently, he has tried to mobilize public support for yielding the Golan Heights in a peace agreement with Syria, saying he would resign if Israelis rejected the deal in a referendum.

In 1995, when a bus bombing outside Tel Aviv shocked the country, Weizman seemed to call for a halt to the Rabin government's peace efforts, saying: "We can't go on like this."

It wasn't the first time his remarks had drawn an outcry for going beyond what is customary for Israel's presidents, and it wasn't the last.

"The biggest mouth for many years belonged to Israel's president," said Haaretz in a September article compiling a list of his attention-getting quotes. While serving in Begin's government, for example, Weizman referred to the prime minister as "the deceased." He once called leftist politician Shulamit Alone an "old hag."

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