Global Policy Forum

Israeli President Resists


By Ilene Prusher

Guardian Unlimited
January 5, 2000

Jerusalem - Israel's President Ezer Weizman was holding out against increasing pressure to resign yesterday after it was revealed that he accepted undisclosed gifts of $453,000 (£283,125) from a French Jewish textile magnate, Edouard Saroussi.

The scandal overshadowed talks between Syria and Israel on the future of the Golan Heights and news that negotiators had finally agreed on an Israeli withdrawal from a further 5% of the West Bank - a move caught up for seven weeks in a dispute with Palestinian officials over maps. The pullout - which had been due in November - will give Palestinians full or partial control of the area within 48 hours of a handover ceremony in Jerusalem. A further 6.1% is due to be handed over by the Israelis on January 20.

But it has been the financial affairs of the 74-year-old doyen of Israeli politics that has preoccupied the nation. He has been accused of failing to report or pay taxes on the cash gifts from Mr Saroussi, a long-time friend. These transactions are alleged to have happened between 1988-93, when Mr Weizman was a member of parliament and minister. The state attorney launched an investigation on Monday into the accusations.

Mr Weizman said yesterday that he was not considering quitting over the allegations that he took the gifts. "I am going through a period that is not easy. I will pass through it. I am waiting to see what the prosecutor will decide and I am not ready to resign," he said on Israel radio.

Yoav Yitzhak, the journalist who broke the gifts story, said the president's office had pressed him not to publish, saying the chances of Middle East peace would be hurt if one of its most influential proponents was removed from the political arena. Yesterday, Mr Yitzhak told a press conference that Mr Weizman was preparing to resign soon anyway, and would cite health reasons. The president's office denied this.

Mr Yitzhak alleged yesterday that Mr Weizman was collecting money from Mr Saroussi even during his years in the presidency, which began in 1993. "From May 1993 until 1995 he (Weizman) and his family withdrew from the trust account money coming to over $55,000. And that's during his term as president," Mr Yitzhak said. Mr Saroussi has acknowledged that starting in the early 80s he also gave $6.5bn (£4bn) to a political party Mr Weizman then headed. Some of the money for the party, Yachad (Together), was put into Mr Weizman's personal account, Israel radio reported.

Mr Weizman has denied any wrongdoing, saying the money was a nontaxable gift from a family friend who had no interests in Israel. Since Mr Saroussi is not a citizen of Israel, Mr Weizman's lawyers suggest, laws on reporting political contributions do not apply.

Mr Weizman, considered by some Israelis to be one of the last surviving heroes of Israel's founding generation and an influential figure in the country's 1979 peace treaty with Egypt, has generally been seen as an affable character despite his tendency for blunt talk. But tolerance may be ebbing away. The rightwing Jerusalem Post has now joined the left-leaning daily Haaretz in calling on him to step down.

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