It is time, says Ezer Weizman as he begins his dark-horse campaign for Israel's leadership, to revive the spirit of Camp David. It is time to bring ''peace'' back into the Israeli political lexicon. It is time to recapture a sense of national purpose, of optimism.
Already dubbed the Gary Hart of the fledgling electoral race by a local pundit, Mr. Weizman is hoping to peddle to a disenchanted Israeli electorate those most slippery of commodities: leadership, charisma, and a vision for the future.
No one is more aware than Weizman that he has set out to achieve what, in Israeli politics, would be a minor miracle. Most analysts here think his bid will fail.
''I am not a naif,'' says Weizman, the former Israeli Air Force chief, defense minister, and Camp David negotiator. He resigned from government in 1980 just as the peace process with Egypt was going sour.
Yet he is equally determined to propel himself, and the new political party he is building around him, back into the mainstream of Israeli politics. He wants, at least, to displace one of the two traditionally dominant parties in parliament, and thus win a major voice in the Cabinet formed after the July 23 election.
''There are two kinds of urgent issues,'' he says, as, literally around him, staffers move into the campaign's spanking-new quarters in Tel Aviv.
''First, there are the things that trouble the public. . . . But there are also the things the public should be troubled by.''
Nowadays, he adds, ''People are rather dormant on the issue of Israel's future in this region.''
''I think there is a fairly big public today that is disenchanted with both sides,'' says Weizman. He is referring to Israel's two main political forces: the Labor Party and the incumbent right-wing Likud coalition.
''People are looking for leadership, for a message. . . .''
Few local political analysts would disagree. Both Likud and Labor are currently led by men short on grass-roots appeal. They have acted in rare unison in fixing an early election date, in part because both fear an internal challenge aimed at presenting more popular figures at the top of their parties' electoral slates.
Rarely have voters geared up for an Israeli election in such somber spirits. The economy is haywire. The war in Lebanon goes from bad to worse. As for wider issues of Arab-Israeli peace, Weizman is right. Not many people spend much time pondering them.
Weizman's main asset is that he remains one of Israel's most popular political figures. His quick wit and sharp tongue have earned him adjectives like ''charming'' and ''charismatic'' from even political foes. Stocky and cocky , he is a military hero who, after flying for the British in World War II, became architect and commander of Israel's own elite Air Force. He is the nephew of Israel's first president, Chaim Weizman.
He has proven political smarts, too. It was he who ran the Likud's 1977 electoral campaign, replacing decades of Labor rule with Menachem Begin's coalition.
Yet Weizman lacks the organization, the money, and the tested core of support of either Labor or Likud.
The last man to come close to achieving something like what Weizman is attempting was former military Chief of Staff Yigael Yadin. In 1977, he led a new centrist party to a creditable showing at the polls - and a place in the Begin coalition.
But an Israeli political analyst notes, ''The precedent may, in fact, hurt Weizman. Voters remember that Yadin's move ended up taking away votes from Labor , putting Begin in power, and not moderating the aspects of Begin policy that Yadin - and men like Weizman - opposed.''
Among these issues was Jewish settlement of the occupied West Bank.
So far Weizman has been short on specifics in his recipe for a reborn impetus for peace - excepting some savage criticism of the Lebanon war, sparking caustic counterthrusts from rival politicians for his total silence on that issue during his self-imposed exile from active politics.
Whatever ''new ideas'' he will run on are being finalized, in concert with advisers and supporters assembled in the few days since Weizman ended that exile.
One focus of his platform will necessarily be the economy. If ever there were an issue of the sort ''that troubles the public,'' the country's rocket-ship inflation rate - about 190 percent - is one.
But, says Weizman, ''the major (platform) ingredient will be peace.'' This, he says, most definitely includes the Palestinian question.
''I call it the Israeli-Palestinian problem, because it is our problem, too. I do not think we can run away from it.''
Precisely what Weizman plans to do about the problem remains unclear. A longtime Likud member, he is said to have shared former Premier Begin's sense that the West Bank belongs to Israel by biblical right, but Weizman is uneasy over the scale of Jewish settlement in the area.
His main contention seems to be that men like himself - ''my friend Ezra,'' was Anwar Sadat's warmly resonant mispronunciation - have ''the experience in dealing with these (peace) issues'' crucial to any renewed negotiating process.
He says he will apply that experience to seeking avenues to peace ''with all our neighbors.''
''Labor and Likud may have more chips to put in the kitty,'' he says, smiling. ''But I have a better hand.''
And he is, clearly, spoiling for a fight. He dismisses criticism of his silence on issues like Lebanon before rejoining the fray.
''I didn't want to talk before the electoral battle,'' he says. ''But now the battle has begun. And I'll use all my ammunition.
''My apologies for using words from my military past, but I have found that the size of the ammunition isn't always what counts. Sometimes large-caliber shells can be useless, while smaller ones hit the mark.''