News Analysis: While Weizman Tries to Tough It Out, Many Worry Ethical Standards Eroding

Nixon or Clinton: Which model is President Ezer Weizman following?

Some politicians have called on Weizman to step down in return for a blanket pardon, such as that granted President Nixon by his successor, Gerald Ford.

But Weizman appears to want to emulate President Clinton and his dogged fight to remain in office despite the Monica Lewinsky affair. Weizman made it clear during a televised speech to the nation Sunday that he would neither resign nor take a leave of absence while police probe allegations he illegally received cash gifts from a French millionaire friend.

Weizman’s decision not to step down has elicited across-the-board criticism from Israel’s political community.

The Weizman affair, combined with other scandals that have shaken up Israeli politics in recent years, has also raised another, potentially more troubling question: Are the ethical norms that characterized the Zionist state in its early decades giving way now to a corrupt set of practices more worthy of a banana republic?

Weizman, Israel’s seventh president, has acknowledged accepting hundreds of thousands of dollars in gifts from Sudan-born businessman Edouard Saroussi from 1988 to 1993, when he served as a legislator and Cabinet minister.

Weizman claims the money was a gift and that his longtime personal lawyer, Hanina Brandes, who was also Saroussi’s lawyer, advised him this was legally permissible.

Attorney General Elyakim Rubinstein ordered a full-fledged police inquiry last week when evidence surfaced that Weizman had undertaken paid consultancy work for Saroussi’s company in Africa in 1983 and 1984. Rubinstein was angered that the president’s lawyers had not volunteered this information.

The still-mushrooming affair is a source of shame and real pain to virtually every Israeli citizen, both because of the warmth and sympathy many feel toward Weizman the man and because of the shadow it casts over the political system.

While Israelis watch with growing unease as their president is investigated by police, they are also well aware that this is not the first time that a trusted political official has had a run-in with the law:

Even as the Weizman affair unfolds, Prime Minister Ehud Barak is being hauled over the coals by the state comptroller over alleged election funding abuses. An official report is due out soon;

Former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is being investigated for allegedly misappropriating gifts given him while in office;

Aryeh Deri, the head of the fervently Orthodox Shas Party, was sentenced last April to four years in jail on charges of bribe-taking, fraud and breach of the public trust.

A top aide to former Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, Shimon Sheves, is the subject of an ongoing bribery trial.

Add to these the high-profile case of Ma’ariv publisher Ofer Nimrodi, who is facing charges of being involved in a murder conspiracy and subverting justice, and you have a worrying picture indeed.

Israeli political observers point to two key events in the country’s recent history that play a significant role in shaping — and perhaps hyping — the current wave of exposures sweeping through the nation’s political establishment:

The Bar-On Affair. In January 1997, Netanyahu appointed a little-known Jerusalem attorney, Roni Bar-On, as attorney general, but had to force him to resign 48 hours later under a storm of allegations that his nomination reflected an attempted “takeover” of the state’s prosecution apparatus by a cabal of politicians.

There were allegations at the time that Bar-On was appointed as part of a deal to provide a plea bargain in the ongoing corruption case against Deri and to soft-pedal charges of telephone tapping then pending against Nimrodi.

Rubinstein, who was subsequently named attorney general, is now spearheading a veritable crusade by the state judicial machine to “purge” the political establishment of any vestiges of corruption.

This explains, say observers, the stern and unforgiving attitude adopted by Rubinstein and State Prosecutor Edna Arbel toward Weizman’s alleged wrongdoing.

The Deri conviction. After his sentencing last year, Deri’s appeal before the Supreme Court is slated to begin soon. When he was sentenced to four years, the court said last year the bribes were general goodwill payments rather than a quid pro quo for specific services rendered.

Those circumstances are not all that different from those alleged against Weizman.

This explains the insistence by the nation’s law enforcement officials and of most of its politicians that Weizman face the music — and their reluctance to turn a blind eye, despite the president’s long service to the state as soldier and statesman.

They fear that to do so would be to trigger huge Shas protests charging discrimination.

The prosecution and conviction of Deri set strict norms of conduct for public officials. Weizman is the first to be measured by them — and to be found lacking.

But the gruff and still widely popular president believes the public will ultimately vindicate him, giving him reluctant admiration and even support in his determined bid, as he said Sunday, “to fight for the truth, till the end.”

His decision not to step down, not surprisingly, was criticized by right-wing politicians, who have been angered by his forthright support for Barak’s peace policies.

But the criticisms have come from across the political spectrum, including from three Cabinet ministers.

Justice Minister Yossi Beilin, who had publicly urged the president to take a leave of absence, said he “respected” Weizman’s decision to stay in office.

But he called on him not to discharge two of his principal constitutional functions — swearing in judges and considering pardons — while the police inquiry against him was in progress.

On Monday, Weizman indicated that he intends to continue fulfilling those duties.

Minister of Absorption Yuli Tamir termed Weizman’s television address “disappointing.” She said he would be pressed publicly on the Saroussi affair wherever he went, and this would inevitably detract from the dignity of his high office.

Another minister, Yitzhak Levy of the National Religious Party, also voiced “shame and disappointment,” saying the president had done “the precise opposite of what was expected” by not stepping down.

Man-in-the-street reactions to the president’s dramatic appearance were harder to gauge.

There were certainly those who praised his courage and stubbornness — “Achla Gever,” Hebrew for a “real he-man,” was one of the phrases much in evidence on Sunday night.

But others felt he risked getting into even deeper waters by not quitting now.

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