Israeli scandal linked to peace efforts


JERUSALEM, Jan. 4 (JTA) — Even as Israel and Syria were locked in a diplomatic struggle in West Virginia over how to begin tackling the thorny issues that divide them, Israelis back home were engaged in a more rancorous debate that presumed a deal was done.

So intense is the domestic political atmosphere that many pundits and ordinary citizens were convinced financial allegations that surfaced this week against President Ezer Weizman were somehow linked to the president’s outspoken — and controversial — advocacy of a pro-peace position.

An investigation into Prime Minister Ehud Barak’s election campaign finances is also being attributed by some in his One Israel movement to political opponents determined to weaken him in advance of the planned national referendum on a Syrian peace deal.

Barak, for his part, continues to exude confidence that he can strike a deal “that will strengthen, not weaken, Israel’s security” — and that when he brings home that deal, he will be able to persuade a solid majority of the Israeli public to vote for it.

A meeting between the premier and Golan Heights settlement leaders just before the Israeli party embarked for the United States on Sunday produced no change of position on either side.

But Barak is taking care to keep the channels of communication open, anxious not to face the charge of alienating or disparaging the settlers, as Yitzhak Rabin was accused of doing as he pursued a peace deal with the Palestinians.

Even amid reports that the resumption of talks were off to a rocky start, opponents of the evolving Golan-for-peace accord were slated to join forces for a mass demonstration in Tel Aviv on Wednesday night.

A smaller demonstration by young Golan and West Bank activists in Jerusalem on Sunday was counterbalanced by a rally of young Laborites in Tel Aviv. Labor activists said they were determined to “fight for the streets” and not let the well-organized settlers go unchallenged.

The public struggle for the Golan was complicated this week with ugly allegations against both Weizman and Barak involving alleged financial impropriety.

Weizman, already the focus of a storm of protest over his unequivocal endorsement of the government’s position on the peace process, was accused by an Israeli journalist of receiving some $450,000 between 1988 and 1995 from French industrialist Edouard Seroussi and failing to declare the gift.

State Attorney Edna Arbel announced Monday that her office would look into the Seroussi affair — a decision that Weizman said he welcomed.

The president insists that the money, and the entire relationship between his family and Seroussi, was private and unconnected with his public roles during that period as a Cabinet minister and a Knesset member, and later as president.

Media reports said Weizman used the money for the care of his late son Shaul, who was wounded as a soldier in 1970 and later was killed in a car accident.

Nonetheless, the influential Israeli daily Ha’aretz on Monday called for Weizman’s immediate resignation.

There is little doubt that Weizman’s discomfort was welcomed by the political right, which has bristled at the president’s public position supporting the Barak government’s peace initiatives. Although the president ostensibly stays neutral, Weizman has repeatedly taken public stands on such issues during his tenure.

Hence there is suspicion on the left that the timing of the disclosures against him were connected with the resumption of the talks with Syria.

A similar suspicion hangs over an inquiry, launched last week by the Justice Ministry, into a slew of charitable foundations linked to Barak’s election campaign last year.

The investigators will be looking into the funding of these foundations, and whether their activities contravened existing election funding legislation.

Labor members charge that the Justice Ministry official involved in the probe is a known Likud activist, and that the inquiry — or at least its timing — is connected to the battle looming over referendums on any peace deals with Syria and the Palestinians.

The Israeli ministerial committee on law, meanwhile, decided Monday that any referendum would pass with a simple majority of votes.

But two key ministers voted against the decision: Natan Sharansky, the leader of Yisrael Ba’Aliyah and Yitzhak Levy, the National Religious Party leader. They may yet throw their weight behind a Likud effort in the Knesset to pass a bill requiring a “special” majority for the referendum.

A special majority — say 60 percent — would be much harder to achieve. But it would mean that a majority of Israel’s Jews — and not its Arab citizens — supported relinquishing the Golan.

While many in Barak’s camp brand this demand as racism, others, among them Tourism Minister Amnon Lipkin-Shahak, a member of the negotiating team, say they support it.

In any event, Barak will need a substantial majority if he is to make a “Yes” decision stick and have it implemented without triggering civil strife.

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