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Israel’s president won’t step down


JERUSALEM, Jan. 23 (JTA) — Israeli President Ezer Weizman has announced he has no intention of stepping down, even though he has become the nation’s first head of state to face a criminal investigation.

In a special televised address to the nation Sunday, Weizman refused to resign or take a leave of absence pending the outcome of a police inquiry into whether he illegally accepted large sums of money from a French millionaire friend.

“I have never abandoned a battle, nor will I abandon this one,” the former air force commander and fighter pilot said as he proclaimed his innocence.

Resigning or taking a voluntary leave from the largely ceremonial post would be akin to an admission of guilt, Weizman said.

“I have two ways to go, and in my opinion there is no middle ground,” Weizman added, reading from a prepared statement. “One way is to fight for the truth to the end and the other is to resign. I have no intention of resigning. I repeat: I have no intention of resigning.”

He also said that going on leave is “not a solution.”

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.

But he has insisted they were personal gifts that he was not required to declare.

In his brief statement, Weizman said he consulted with a lawyer who repeatedly told him his actions were legal and involved no improprieties.

“If I made a mistake, it was a human error and unintentional,” Weizman said. “I have tried all my life to act with honesty and integrity.”

An initial police probe into whether Weizman had properly reported the gifts turned into a criminal investigation Sunday after police reportedly discovered a business relationship between Weizman and Saroussi.

Since the allegations about the cash gift from Saroussi were first disclosed by an Israeli journalist several weeks ago, there have been growing calls from politicians that Weizman step aside while the investigation is conducted.

The allegations against the president include a charge raised by the journalist who first disclosed the affair that Weizman indirectly accepted a $3 million bribe in 1984 to keep his now-defunct Yahad Party out of a right-wing government.

Even before the scandal erupted, right-wing politicians were angered by Weizman’s support of Prime Minister Ehud Barak’s peace policies. Such support violates the largely symbolic post of the presidency, they charged.

In the wake of Weizman’s speech to the nation, Deputy Education Minister Shaul Yahalom of the National Religious Party said Weizman’s decision to remain in the post is damaging to the presidency.

“Unfortunately, I think the president made another mistake,” Yahalom told Channel Two television. “The norm in Israel must be for every public figure, that if a criminal investigation is launched against him, he must suspend himself. It would be respectful to the nation and to the post.”

Justice Minister Yossi Beilin, who last Friday called on Weizman to take a leave of absence, said after Weizman’s speech that he respected the president’s decision.

But Beilin urged Weizman to refrain from filling any of his judicial duties, such as granting pardons or swearing in judges, while the inquiry is under way.

A veteran public figure who held key posts in the military and politics before becoming president, the 75-year-old Weizman is now in the second term of his presidency, which has spanned both left- and right-wing governments.

The outspoken Weizman has frequently been a counterbalance to government policy, pushing for progress when the peace process faltered and urging a slowdown during waves of terrorist attacks.

Most recently, he gave his unequivocal support to an Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights in order to reach peace with Syria.

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