Role of Israeli President Debated After Meeting with Arab Leaders

Israeli President Ezer Weizman’s comments to a group of Israeli Arab leaders regarding the peace process has renewed public debate over whether the president of Israel should comment on politically controversial issues.

Weizman reportedly told the Israeli Arab leaders last week that the agreement signed last month in Washington for expanding West Bank autonomy was concluded hastily and is not a real agreement.

During the meeting, sharp words were reportedly exchanged between Weizman and Labor Knesset member Saleh Tareef, who said the president’s remarks gave Israeli Arabs the impression that he had abandoned the peace process.

Tareef later asserted that Weizman had said the Interim Agreement was not a real accord, that it was hastily negotiated and that because it was passed in the Knesset by a 61-59 vote, it had “no majority” to back it up.

The President’s Office later said that Weizman’s remarks had been taken out of context and that he wholeheartedly supports the peace process.

The role of an Israeli president has in the past largely been ceremonial. But in matters relating to the peace process, Weizman has recently taken stands that diverged from the policies of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.

Reacting to the incident, Cabinet ministers Yossi Beilin and Uzi Baram said Weizman, by speaking out against the accord, had done a disservice to his reputation and to the role an Israeli president is supposed to play.

But Knesset member Zevulun Hammer of the National Religious Party said that Weizman was expressing the feelings of the majority of what Hammer called “the Zionist public in Israel.”

Meanwhile, Meretz Knesset member Dedi Zucker, chairman of the parliamentary law committee, backed legislation that would hamstring an Israeli president’s ability to make statements that run counter to government policies.

“He can speak out on public issues, definitely,” Zucker told Israel Radio. “But no [in the office before him] has allowed himself to express daily positions against the government.”

Deputy House Speaker Ovadia Eli, of the Likud Party, presented a bill that would strengthen the status of the president, under which the Knesset, or Cabinet could be required to hold special discussions on matters the president considered crucial.

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