Global Policy Forum

Israel Opens Criminal Case


By Joel Greenberg

New York Times
January 21, 2000

Jerusalem, Jan. 20 - A snowballing investigation of the large sums of money a French businessman gave President Ezer Weizman entered a new phase today when Israel's attorney general ordered a criminal investigation into possible tax evasion by Mr. Weizman. It was the first criminal investigation of an Israeli president, whose tasks are largely ceremonial but who is the official head of state.

Although the presidency is supposed to be a largely symbolic post and above politics, Mr. Weizman, 75, a former air force chief and defense minister, has used the influence of the office to speak out in support of Arab-Israeli peace efforts and on other issues. But the questions about his financial affairs have weakened his public voice, threatening to force him to resign.

Attorney General Elyakim Rubinstein ordered the criminal inquiry after police investigators submitted findings suggesting that Mr. Weizman had business ties with Edouard Saroussi, the French executive who reportedly gave Mr. Weizman hundreds of thousands of dollars over several years when he served as a legislator and cabinet minister. The transfers were disclosed three weeks ago by Yoav Yitzhak, an Israeli investigative reporter, who asserted that Mr. Weizman had received a total of $453,465 from Mr. Saroussi in monthly installments from 1988 to 1993.

Mr. Weizman acknowledged receiving money from Mr. Saroussi, but said that it was a personal gift from a friend that was not considered taxable income and said that he was not legally obligated to report. However the police officers investigating the money transfers said that they had discovered documentation indicating a business relationship between Mr. Saroussi and Mr. Weizman, raising suspicions that the transfers may not have been mere gifts but payment for services.

A Justice Ministry statement said that there was "apparent evidence of a relationship of a business nature between Mr. Weizman and a company linked to Mr. Saroussi between the years 1983-84, until after Mr. Weizman assumed the post of cabinet minister." The statement noted that the business connection did not appear in documents submitted to investigators by Mr. Weizman's office. "Given the findings, the attorney general and the state attorney have directed the police to open an investigation along with the tax authorities," the statement added. Investigators are expected to question Mr. Weizman as early as next week.

Mr. Weizman's lawyer, Yaacov Weinroth, emphatically denied any wrongdoing by his client, saying that he had paid taxes on a consultation fee received for advising a foreign company owned by Mr. Saroussi. "The money was reported to the income tax authorities," Mr. Weinroth said at a news conference broadcast live on television, noting that Mr. Weizman did not hold public office at the time. "The president hid nothing." In an opening statement, Mr. Weinroth declared: "The president is innocent, spotless," adding, "The president does not intend to resign."

Mr. Weizman himself avoided any public comment today as he went about his ceremonial rounds, receiving the president of Armenia at his official residence in Jerusalem, and later traveling to his home in the seaside resort of Caesarea for the weekend. His spokesman, Aryeh Shumer, said: "The president is not resigning. He is continuing at his post." "His Honor the President demands to be investigated as would any citizen, without privileges," Mr. Shumer added, reading from a letter sent to the state attorney's office by Mr. Weizman's lawyers. The letter urged that the investigation "be completed with all deliberate speed."

As news of the investigation spread across Israel, many politicians seemed reluctant to call openly for the resignation of the popular Mr. Weizman, despite the pervasive sense that his public standing had been irreparably compromised. Those who have spoken, have chosen their words carefully. "This is a difficult hour for all of us, especially those of us who know the president and respect his tremendous contribution to the state," said Prime Minister Ehud Barak. "I'm sure the president will know how to act with regard to the inquiry and in accordance with its findings."

Justice Minister Yossi Beilin said that Mr. Weizman should take a leave of absence for several weeks. "At this moment it would be advisable for the president to take a vacation," Mr. Beilin said. Mr. Barak had to answer questions himself on Wedesday night when the state comptroller came to his office to query him about reported illegal fund-raising in his election campaign last year. The comptroller, Eliezer Goldberg, is looking into allegations that nonprofit organizations set up during the campaign funneled funds illegally to Mr. Barak and his Labor Party. Mr. Barak has denied any link to the reported violations. The comptroller's report is expected next week.


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