IN 1980, when Ezer Weizman was defense minister of Israel, he and the Israeli military governor of the occupied West Bank called on Karim Khalef, the late Palestinian mayor of the Arab town of Ramallah on the West Bank. The military governor began making disparaging remarks about Mr. Khalef in Hebrew to Mr. Weizman. ``We speak two languages in common with Mayor Khalef,'' Mr. Weizman admonished the governor sternly, ``Arabic and English, and when we are in his presence we will speak a language that he understands.''
Karim Khalef, a supporter of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), used to repeat this story often, to illustrate why Arabs could talk to Ezer Weizman. The dashing Weizman, a key architect of the Israel-Egypt peace treaty, was probably closer to the late Egyptian President Anwar Sadat than any other Israeli and is considered by both admirers and detractors the Israeli leader most obsessed with the need to pursue peace.
Yet today, in the relatively powerless post of minister without portfolio -- in a coalition government paralyzed by a split between outright hawks and uncertain doves -- Ezer Weizman fumes with frustration that the fleeting chance to test the willingness of moderate Arabs to negotiate with Israel is about to be lost.
``For the first time in 35 years,'' he says, ``there is the will on the part of the Arab world -- not everybody, of course -- to talk. If this government doesn't succeed in moving peace forward, history will judge it and accuse it of losing a great opportunity.'' Weizman's greatest fear is that Israel's divided government can't or won't overcome the Israeli public's skepticism about peace with the Arabs. ``Israel's leadership hasn't succeeded in moving Israelis from their feeling of insecurity. People a re afraid of peace. They haven't come out of the galut (Diaspora) feeling that everyone is against us.''
Weizman does not underestimate Israel's need for security or overestimate the willingness of Arab moderates like King Hussein to risk everything for peace. But he stresses that Israel has entered a new phase in which its security can best be guaranteed if its leaders are willing to take every chance to explore Arab overtures.
After training a generation of Israelis to fight, Weizman finds the harder -- and undone -- task is ``to teach them that we must live together with the Arabs. . . . Anyone who wants Israel to remain on the West Bank and Gaza in this or that form must understand he's living with 2 million Palestinian Arabs. And anyone who thinks he can kill them all or kick them out'' -- a reference to Rabbi Meir Kahane and his followers -- ``is a nut. That's exactly what was preached against th e Jews.''
Weizman believes most Israelis fail to appreciate the importance of the peace with Egypt, which he believes was one of the most important political events in Israeli history. For that reason he feels top priority in pursuit of the peace process is for Israel and Egypt to normalize relations, ruptured after Israel's invasion of Lebanon, so as to boost Israeli public acceptance of the concept of peace treaties with Arab states.
When it comes to talks with Jordan, Weizman minces no words on the controversial issue of how to deal with King Hussein's insistence that Jordan will only negotiate in a joint team with Palestinians approved by Yasser Arafat's Palestine Liberation Organization.
``First,'' he says, ``neither Jordan nor Egypt will talk to us without Palestinian representation. Second, it's not a question of the PLO, it's a question of solving the Palestinian problem in all its aspects, of the legitimate rights of the Palestinian people.''
Weizman refuses to be drawn into the oft heard Israeli debate over whether to talk to Palestinians associated with an organization -- the PLO -- which is blamed for attacks on Israeli civilians or military. ``If you don't talk there is a tendency on all sides to shoot,'' he says.
Weizman also refuses to quibble over the question of whether PLO-affiliated delegates should be acceptable to Israel on a joint Jordan-Palestinian team. ``To me, who is on the delegation is not important,'' he says. ``What is important is what we are going to talk about. . . .''
Weizman believes it is up to King Hussein and President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt to produce such a joint delegation.
While he insists the peace process will continue, Ezer Weizman believes it can only succeed if American, Israeli, and Arab leaders are willing to stake their prestige and power on achieving a Mideast peace. ``Three people risked their careers for the Israel-Egypt peace treaty,'' he recalls. ``Jimmy Carter put his career on the line. Sadat gave his life. And Begin now sits at home. I resigned from the Ministry of Defense because I thought in 1980 my goverment was wrong and not fulfilling the treaty.
``Sadat once said to me, `Ezer, I'm talking to you of big, big, big business.' Peace is big, big business.
`` I say to some of my colleagues in the Labor Party I hope history won't be so cynical as to judge that Menachem Begin brought peace and Shimon Peres lost it. If Israel wants to become a strong established country it has to come to a political decision and make peace with the Arabs.''
Trudy Rubin, a member of the Philadelphia Inquirer editorial board, just returned from the Middle East.