Shimon Peres, the most experienced Israeli politician still in the harness, was not on Ehud Barak’s 25-man team negotiating peace with Syria in West Virginia this week. But the 76-year-old economic cooperation minister may have moved within striking distance of the last public position he still craves: the presidency.
The prospects of Ezer Weizman’s completing his second term have diminished after he confirmed a report by investigative journalist Yoav Yitzhak that he received nearly half a million dollars from a French Jewish tycoon, Edouard Seroussi, while serving as a legislator and minister in the ’80s.
The gift was never declared, either to the Knesset or to the tax man. A decade ago, with Weizman’s blessing, Seroussi was behind an abortive attempt to launch a second English-language daily to compete with the Jerusalem Post. He maintains a home in the upscale Tel-Aviv suburb of Saviyon.
Government lawyers have opened an investigation. Weizman says he did nothing illegal, since his friend Seroussi had no business interests in Israel and the money had been paid into a trust, administered by Weizman’s attorney (from whose office the president’s file appears to have been filched). It is alleged that thousands of dollars were transferred piecemeal to the private accounts of Weizman, his wife and daughter, even after he became president in 1993. In effect, Seroussi seems to have bankrolled the old pilot’s political career.
Justice Minister Yossi Beilin has warned against rushing to judgment. Nevertheless, the rumor mill is churning. Prime Minister Barak is reported to have promised Peres his support. Ra’anan Cohen, Labor’s secretary-general, has confirmed that the former leader is the party’s choice to succeed Weizman. Peres, the only Israeli to have held all four top government posts — prime minister, foreign, defense and finance — makes no secret that he is available. He remains as active and creative as ever.
The ailing, 75-year-old incumbent has “welcomed” the chance to clear his name and is turning over all relevant papers, but some commentators are already demanding that he step down. The clamor has been amplified by resentment — not only on the right — at the way Weizman has begun campaigning for a Golan withdrawal as part of a peace package with Damascus.
The president announced that he would resign if Israelis did not vote “yes” in the promised referendum. More than 60 percent of the public polled by Gallup condemned that as inappropriate intervention by a national figurehead who is supposed to be above the political battle.
So far, his fellow politicians have been more reticent than the media, who don’t want to be accused of gunning for right wingers suspected of bribe-taking, like Shas’ Aryeh Deri and the Likud’s Binyamin Netanyahu, while ignoring establishment peacenicks like Weizman.
In an editorial headlined “The president must resign,” the liberal daily Ha’aretz went for the jugular: “The public expects its representatives to make do with their monthly salaries and not be tempted to accept gifts, which could affect the recipient’s judgment. Nor was this a reasonable one-time gift that one friend gives another. It was in fact a second, and very hefty, monthly salary that was given to Weizman when he held a highly influential public position.
“In the past, some public servants faced trial for receiving gifts of far less value, the assumption being that any gift that is given to a public figure is suspect, and that the more senior the person and the larger the gift, the more suspect it is. The fact that it is impossible to point to a direct connection between the gift and the quid pro quo is not proof that the crime of bribery was not committed. A financial investment in a senior public figure can sometimes be a long-term affair.”
Writing on the same page, columnist Dan Margalit, argued: “The issue has nothing to do with criminality, but rather with norms. In a country whose president receives half a million dollars from a tycoon who is not a relative, it is impossible to put a junior civil servant on trial for having accepted a bribe in return for a building permit.”
Margalit, a former Washington correspondent who blew the whistle on then Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s illegal American bank account 23 years ago, broadened the attack on Weizman. “His intervention on behalf of peace with Syria represents a serious deviation from the kind of behavior one would expect from an Israeli president,” he wrote. “Weizman will destroy much more than just the presidency, because he is not prepared to represent the minority in this country; because, after an Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights, he will lack the moral authority to heal the wounds in our society; and because he sets such a poor example as to how civil servants should act.”
In truth, Ezer Weizman has more critics than enemies. His story is the story of Sabra Israel, in war and in peace, this last half century. When he figured in a “This is Your Life” TV program in the ’70s, the nation came to a halt. He is a rude charmer, a chivalrous male chauvinist. When he was accused not long ago of shooting from the hip, he retorted that the gunslinger who didn’t shoot from the hip ended up dead on the saloon floor.
If he does have to resign, no one will dance on his political grave. In the fall, after he had his gall bladder removed, it was whispered that he would step down this spring when he completed seven years in office. Sadly, he may no longer have that honorable option.