Weizman’s ‘Watergate’ a specter over Israel


JERUSALEM, April 10 (JTA) — The removal of a president, a specter that has hung over American public life twice during the past 26 years, is now casting its shadow over Israel.

Ezer Weizman, president of Israel for almost seven years, emerged last week from a police inquiry into his financial affairs without a recommendation that he be charged — but with a less-than-blemish-free verdict from the police.

Politicians from all parties are now urging him to resign his office before the attorney general issues his formal opinion on the police findings — a ruling that will probably contain a condemnation of the head of state’s ethics.

Weizman has said so far that he won’t resign, but he said this week that he has long been considering retirement before his term ends in 2003.

Police launched their investigation of Weizman after a free-lance journalist, Yoav Yitzhak, published allegations that he had received a regular stipend for years, starting in the late 1980s, from a French millionaire friend, Edouard Saroussi.

The sums totaled more than $300,000, Yitzhak asserted — and the police confirmed.

Weizman received the gifts when he served as a legislator, a minister and even as president, from a trust fund held by another close friend, Tel Aviv attorney Hanina Brandes.

Police also corroborated that Saroussi had given $100,000 to Weizman’s daughter and a car to Weizman himself.

An Israeli businessman-friend, Rami Ungar, was also found to have paid monthly stipends of $1,000 dollars to Weizman during the mid-1980s.

Weizman declared none of these gifts to the state comptroller, as he was required to do as an elected official.

The police report, released April 6, found insufficient evidence to sustain a charge of bribery, even though the police documented instances in which Saroussi sought Weizman’s help to promote Saroussi’s business interests in Israel.

The police did find evidence of fraud and of breach of trust. They recommended that no charges be brought — but only because the statute of limitations had expired.

It is these findings, in the view of most political and legal observers, that make Weizman’s continued tenure unacceptable from the standpoint of public propriety.

The differences between this Israeli trauma and the American experiences with President Nixon in 1974 and with President Clinton last year are as pronounced as the similarities.

In Washington, after all, a president is no mere figurehead, installed by the legislature, but the head of the executive branch who is elected directly by the nation.

This difference renders Weizman’s situation all the more sorry. For while impeachment in the United States is inevitably a process imbued with political partisanship, in Weizman’s case the calls for his speedy retirement — or compulsory removal — are coming from across the political spectrum.

“It’s his call; but if I were he, I’d go.” This was the almost formulaic phraseology employed by such key officials as Finance Minister Avraham Shochat and Justice Minister Yossi Beilin, both of whom are on the dovish left of the Israeli political divide — the area from which Weizman now occupies.

Moving rightward on the political spectrum, the voices are less euphemistic, the message more unmistakable.

For example, the normally soft-spoken housing minister, Yitzhak Levy, leader of the National Religious Party, stated categorically on Monday that Weizman was “bringing no honor to the office of the presidency” by continuing to cling to the post.

And in the Likud opposition, politicians are vying with each other to issue prime-time calls for Weizman’s immediate departure.

The danger to the president is that if he does not accede to the mounting pressure and step down voluntarily, a move may gather steam in the Knesset for his forcible removal.

It is a legislative process akin to impeachment, requiring a majority of 80 out of the Knesset’s 120 members.

While most members are plainly hesitant to take such drastic action against the still-popular president, most are even more unwilling to accept a situation in which the head of state ignores the prevailing opinion within the political community.

Weizman has stated that he is “happy” with the outcome of the police investigation. And his wife, Reuma, said Monday that she, too, felt they “could carry on normally now.”

Weizman himself has repeatedly hinted that he sees political enemies behind the original disclosures aired by Yitzhak.

Sources close to him link the episode to his staunch support for the peace process — a support that could have been critical in the run-up to a referendum on a withdrawal from the Golan Heights or from the West Bank.

But while those suspicions may indeed be shared by politicians on the left, they are producing little or no backing for Weizman now that the police report is in.

Even politicians who are prepared to accept the president’s theory of political victimization say he cannot escape the bald facts — and their implications — unearthed by the police.

A president, they say, cannot have been on the secret payroll of a millionaire, have sought to conceal this, have been exposed — and still remain at the pinnacle of national affairs.

Adding to the politicians’ desire that Weizman step down is their growing collective discomfort with the mushrooming role of the attorney general as the arbiter both of political mores and of political fates.

Since the case is unlikely to go before a court of law, the feeling on both sides of the Knesset aisle is that the legislators, who elect the president, should be the judge of this president’s continued suitability for his high office.

By bringing massive pressure to bear on Weizman, both publicly and in private, Israel’s senior politicians are intent on taking back for the legislature — from the judiciary and state prosecutor — the right to determine the nation’s binding ethical standards.

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