Israel's President, Accused of


By William A. Orme Jr.

New York Times
May 28, 2000

Jerusalem - President Ezer Weizman, denounced for financial misdealings in a new report by state prosecutors, will resign on July 10, his spokeswoman said today, putting a scandal-tainted end to what had been one of the most distinguished careers in Israeli public life.

An election in Parliament to select Israel's next president is tentatively scheduled for Aug. 1, with former Prime Minister Shimon Peres expected to get Prime Minister Ehud Barak's backing in a contest against Moshe Katzav, a longtime legislator from the right-wing Likud party.

Though the position is largely ceremonial, the president of Israel represents the country in countless diplomatic forums, and has the power to appoint judges, commute sentences and perform other judicial functions.

Mr. Weizman decided to quit days after the release of a scathing report by Israel's attorney general on his unreported and untaxed receipt of more than $300,000 in cash gifts from two businessmen a decade ago. Though there were insufficient grounds for prosecution, Mr. Weizman could have faced criminal charges on at least one count of bribery had the statute of limitations not expired, the report said.

Mr. Weizman, who was a cabinet minister and member of Parliament in the period he received the payments, had failed to abide by financial disclosure rules for public officials, the attorney general said. The report said the president's conduct "hurt the public and damaged its faith in elected public officials."

That faith took a further beating today with the resignation of Transport Minister Yitzhak Mordechai, who is charged with three criminal counts of sexual assault and harassment, based on the testimony of three former female subordinates. Mr. Mordechai, a highly decorated former general and defense minister, was an unsuccessful prime ministerial candidate in 1999.

Former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, meanwhile, is accused of the misuse of public funds during his term in office, and close associates of Mr. Barak are under investigation for possible criminal violations of campaign finance laws.

Mr. Weizman, whose second term as president was to have ended in two years, has been a public figure since he led the air force to victory in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. He had never been tarred by scandal before reports of the gifts surfaced last year. Famously caustic in tone and intemperate toward critics, he had cultivated a reputation of cranky rectitude that seemed to elevate him above the partisan political fray.

But in his sworn testimony to the attorney general's office, Mr. Weizman readily acknowledged that Rami Unger, an Israeli businessman, and Edouard Seroussi, a French entrepreneur, had provided the funds to support his political ambitions. "They didn't want me because of my pretty eyes," he told investigators. "They wanted me because of what I was, and what they hoped that I would be."

He said he stopped accepting the gifts when he first became a candidate for the presidency a decade ago, because "perhaps I thought that if I was going to be president, it would be more wrong."

He had said after the report's release that he would remain in office until the Jewish New Year in October. But the speaker of Parliament, Avraham Burg, warned Mr. Weizman's chief of staff that if the president did not step down now, there would be a motion in Parliament to have him dismissed.