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News Analysis: Israel’s President Relishes Intervening in Peace Process


Ezer Weizman, a longtime Israeli maverick, has again propelled his uninhibited personal diplomacy onto the stage of the faltering peace process.

Less than a week after hosting Palestinian Authority leader Yasser Arafat at his seaside villa in Caesarea, the Israeli president was in Cairo this week for one-on-one talks with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and was scheduled to see Jordan’s King Hussein in Amman.

One Israeli observer this week referred to Weizman, with admiration, as “the fireman,” noting that the 72-year-old president’s diplomacy has been contributing visibly to dousing the sparks of confrontation that have threatened to consume the peace process.

As Weizman worked his personal charm in Cairo, Israeli and Palestinian negotiators, with the assistance of American mediators, were reported to be nearing a breakthrough on Hebron.

Netanyahu and Arafat could meet as early as this week to finalize a revised accord on the redeployment of Israeli troops from most of the West Bank town, where some 450 Jewish settlers live among 100,000 Palestinians.

Although the intervention of an Israeli president in politics, whose role is intended to be ceremonial, is a cause for controversy, Weizman has never shied away from speaking out.

This has been true ever since he “parachuted” from the Israel Defense Force high command straight into a Cabinet seat in 1969, as a Likud-Herut minister, in the government of national unity that had been set up during the Six-Day War.

As the longtime commander of Israel’s air force, he was largely responsible for building the fledgling force into the powerful machine that proved its might June 5, 1967, the start of the war.

As head of the Likud’s election campaign in 1977, Weizman was widely credited with orchestrating the first-ever change of government in Israel’s 29-year history. Menachem Begin, prime minister at last after eight consecutive election defeats, rewarded Weizman with the Ministry of Defense.

Weizman was thought to be a dyed-in-the-wool hard-liner, but he became the Cabinet’s most avid supporter of the peace process after Egyptian President Anwar Sadat’s visit to Jerusalem in November 1977.

He left Begin’s government in 1980 over what he felt was the prime minister’s backtracking on autonomy for the Palestinians, which had been agreed upon in principle at Camp David in 1978.

He subsequently moved steadily leftward, first heading his own small party and then joining the Labor Party.

Serving as a Labor minister during the unity governments of the 1980s, Weizman incurred the wrath of the then-Likud prime minister, Yitzhak Shamir, by vigorously advocating talks with the Palestinians and by meeting with Palestine Liberation Organization officials, despite the law at the time forbidding such contact.

But after Labor returned to power in 1992, and Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and then-Foreign Minister Shimon Peres launched the peace process with the Palestinians, they found Weizman, as president of the state, to be less than supportive.

When Palestinian terrorists spread carnage in Israeli towns with their bombs, Weizman joined with those Israelis urging a slowing down of the peace process.

“We should take a time-out from the negotiations,” Weizman would say during visits to the injured in hospitals, as Rabin and Peres gritted their teeth.

Some political observers here believe that Weizman’s reaction to the series of suicide bombings in February and March may have cost Peres the election in May. The Likud pounced on the president’s plain-spoken reservations over the peace process with glee, recounting them repeatedly as the authentic collective reaction of the average Israeli.

The president’s uninhibited involvement in the current crisis in the peace process is seen by some observers here as a form of expiation by the emotional and volatile Weizman for the damage he may regret having caused the previous Labor government.

In any event, he has hardly sought to hide his intense dissatisfaction with Netanyahu’s policies.

“I’m going to Cairo to try and prevent a total rift,” he told reporters Sunday, as the Egyptian media continued their venomous attacks on Netanyahu and as Mubarak said he was under pressure from some quarters to sever Egypt’s ties with Israel.

Weizman’s relations with Mubarak have a special element; the Egyptian head of state, too, is a former commander of his country’s air force. Both men talk and think like fighter pilots — quick on their feet, quick to anger and quick to make up.

Thus, after 90 minutes with Weizman, a newly courteous Mubarak told reporters that the strains with Israel were “not a matter of being upset or annoyed.”

“It’s a matter of how to push the process forward so as to reach the final goal,” he added.

Mubarak said there would be “no problem” for him to meet with Netanyahu as soon as an agreement on Hebron was achieved.

Meanwhile, Netanyahu and his aides put the best face on what could have been an embarrassing intervention by the older and more experienced president to help the young and inexperienced prime minister climb out of the diplomatic hole into which he has dug himself.

There was much talk, both in the premier’s office and among Weizman’s staff, of the “coordination” between the two, and the president was careful to tell the media in Cairo that he would be reporting back immediately to Netanyahu.

But not everyone in Netanyahu’s Cabinet and Likud Party were playing along with this show of harmony.

Rafael Eitan, the hard-line minister of agriculture, urged the Cabinet to not approve Weizman’s trip. Every official visit by a president requires the Cabinet’s formal consent, and it was granted late last week.

Shamir, now the Likud’s elder statesman, accused the president of seeking to “undermine” Netanyahu.

Can Weizman’s charm genuinely help ease the tensions in the region surrounding the stalled peace process? Probably only marginally.

But his high-profile effort to salvage the peace process is certainly adding to the weight of pressures, at home and abroad, being brought to bear on Netanyahu to conclude expeditiously the Hebron redeployment.

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