Once a Hawk, Now a Dove Weizman Takes Israel Helm
AN IMPETUOUS NATIONAL SYMBOL
JERUSALEM — EZER WEIZMAN'S first task as Israel's president - the largely ceremonial job he took over yesterday - will be especially trying.
On Sunday Mr. Weizman, whose radical political views and notoriously loose tongue make him an unlikely new figurehead for the Jewish state, will address the right-wing opposition Likud Party's convention. Weizman defected noisily from the Likud in 1980, saying the party was uninterested in peace.
What's more, Likud is holding the meeting on the Golan Heights, to underline its opposition to giving up the territory in the Middle East peace talks. Weizman believes Israel should return the Heights to Syrian rule.
But he has promised not to say so. For the time being, at least, he will restrain his urge to influence the peace process and respect the presidential tradition of staying out of politics.
No one who knows him, however, expects him to do so for long. "It's not a question of whether he can or can't express his political opinions as president," says Susan Hattis Rolef, editor of the Labor Party magazine Spectrum. "He simply will."
"There will be never a dull moment with Ezer as president," predicts former president Yitzhak Navon.
A scion of the Zionist aristocracy - his uncle Chaim Weizman was Israel's first president - Ezer Weizman has always enjoyed a high profile. He grew up in a wealthy family, rather than in the puritanical atmosphere of the Labor pioneers, and first developed his flamboyant style as a fighter pilot during World War II with the British Royal Air Force.
He helped found the Israeli Air Force, rising to become its commander. He was deputy military chief of staff during the 1967 Six-Day War. Retiring in 1969, he jumped straight into the leadership of Menachem Begin's Likud, and held a Cabinet position in the post-war national unity government. Eight years later, he masterminded the 1977 election campaign that made Begin prime minister.
As defense minister during the Camp David peace talks with Egypt in 1978-79, Weizman encouraged Begin to take risks. It was during those negotiations that the former Air Force hawk became a convinced dove, though some see the roots of his conversion in the 1973 war with Egypt and Syria.
That war made him begin to think that only a political solution would ensure Israel's security. His only son was disabled by a sniper's bullet. "He was ready for the idea that war was obsolete, and that the only solution lay in negotiations," says Yael Dayan, his niece, who is a Labor member of the Knesset (parliament).
Storming out of the Likud government in 1980 - he felt it was dragging its feet on peace - Weizman eventually joined the Labor Party, and served in minor Cabinet posts in subsequent governments. But his career has been based more on personality than political skill.
If Weizman's charm and self confidence are seen as assets for his new post, his impetuosity looms large. "If ever someone was unsuited for a job it's this guy," says Zeev Chafets, who worked under Weizman on Begin's 1977 campaign. "Presidents are meant to be boring, stuffy, and mainstream, and none of those adjectives apply to Weizman."
Constitutionally, the Israeli president has the power only to pardon prisoners and decide who to ask to form the government after elections, a choice almost always dictated by the election results.
But as the symbol of the state, "the president can play a tremendous role in forging one nation out of all the different sorts of people here," says Mr. Navon, president from 1978 to 1983. On political issues, Navon says, "that means a president has to stay within the consensus of about 80 percent of the Knesset, and not get involved in party conflicts."
Weizman's views - such as support for a Palestinian state - are well outside the Israeli consensus. Critics worry that, at this point in the peace talks, he will be unable to serve "as the man around whom most people can rally, who can soothe people."
But it is the peace process that attracted Weizman to this post. "I think he will be a very positive force in the peace process," says commentator Moshe Negbi. "He's a war hero, and if he says he trusts the Arabs, it will be easier for the Israeli people to do so."
Weizman "is not a conventional person, and we can expect some irregular moves from him," predicts Abraham Diskin, a professor of politics at Hebrew University. "He is not going to be just the good boy running cocktail parties."