The criminal investigation launched against Ezer Weizman, Israel’s president for the past seven years and one of its most respected leaders, has rocked a country that was recently stunned by the very public probe of its former prime minister. And coming on top of a series of other high-profile corruption cases, it has forced many Israelis to question whether their nation has lost its moral compass.
“What I sense is shame and embarrassment,” said Gerald Steinberg, a political scientist at Bar-Ilan University. “We’ve become a Third World country, violating Jewish ethics and [David] Ben-Gurion’s ideal of Israel as a light unto the nations. Even Weizman, a founding father with broad personal appeal who symbolizes the sabra [native Israeli] and was one of the core of fighters [during Israel’s War of Independence] in 1948, has become implicated in a seedy scandal.”
The charges involve allegations that Weizman, as a politician from 1988 until 1993, failed to report his receipt of $453,000 from French millionaire Edouard Sarousi. Weizman, 75, acknowledged receiving money, but not as much as alleged by journalist Yoav Yitzhak, who broke the story, and only on the advice of counsel.
Even Prime Minister Ehud Barak, as he tries to navigate simultaneous peace treaties with the Syrians and Palestinians, has become caught up in the scandals. He was questioned by state Comptroller Eliezer Goldberg last week about allegations that fictitious associations illegally pumped foreign contributions into his 1999 election campaign.
In fact, the Israeli media ascribed the cancellation of Barak’s trip to Switzerland this weekend to his concerns about the planned release of the comptroller’s investigation of the charges.
A leader of the opposition Likud Party, Naomi Blumenthal, said she welcomed the report.
“During the campaign we saw huge amounts of money being spent by the campaign for Barak,” she said. “It was incredible. We were asking how they could spend so much money” because of campaign spending limits.
Likud officials said they would petition Israel’s High Court of Justice to intervene in the matter if a formal police inquiry was not started within two weeks. Barak has denied any connection to the alleged fund-raising violations, but some of those close to him are said to be implicated. Barak reportedly maintains that funding restrictions only applied to those running for the Knesset and not the premiership.
Steinberg traces the series of corruption cases to January 1997 when then-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appointed a little-known Jerusalem lawyer, Roni Bar-On, as attorney general. Within 48 hours, Netanyahu was forced to rescind the appointment after critics charged that it reflected an attempt by a cabal of politicians to “takeover” the state’s prosecution apparatus. It was alleged that Bar-On’s appointment was arranged to allow the targets of two high-profile criminal investigations to get sweetheart deals.
Elyakim Rubinstein, viewed by the media as “Mr. Clean” for being virtually incorruptible, was thereafter appointed attorney general. One observer said he then mounted a “veritable crusade … to purge the political establishment of any vestiges of corruption.”
Steinberg said he sees it “as part of a cleansing process.” He said the corruption being rooted out “was the sort of behavior that was tolerated in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s, but times have changed. The excuse that everybody’s doing it is no longer acceptable. The public will no longer allow simplistic explanations by officials for closing a file on suspected violations of ethical norms.”
Among the first things Rubinstein did was to pursue the investigations that Bar-On’s appointment had reportedly been designed to resolve. As a result, there was no plea bargain for Aryeh Deri, then head of the Orthodox Shas Party. He ended up being sentenced to four years in prison on charges of bribe-taking, fraud and breach of the public trust. And the telephone tapping case against Maariv newspaper publisher Ofer Nimrodi was pursued. After being convicted and serving a prison sentence, he faces new charges of conspiracy to murder and subverting justice.
Add to that the ongoing investigation of Netanyahu himself and his wife, Sara, for allegedly misappropriating gifts received while he was in office. Both have been repeatedly grilled by police about suspicions that they illegally kept silverware, candlesticks, carpets, pictures, scarves and a gold letter opener from Vice President Al Gore. Sara Netanyahu was questioned again just last week.
Also last week, former Justice Minister Tzachi Hanegbi was informed by Rubinstein that he would be charged with fraud for allegedly receiving an illegal salary of tens of thousands of dollars from a non-profit association he help found to promote traffic safety.
But it is the Weizman probe that has left the country reeling, not only because of Weizman’s popularity with Israelis but because of his adamant refusal during a nationally televised address Sunday to step aside in the face of the criminal investigation. After the broadcast, one poll found that the number of Israelis who thought he should resign jumped from 41 to 50 percent.
“Unless Weizman is found to be totally innocent or within a gray area — where people could forgive him for making a mistake and not a criminal act — he is in deep trouble and the office of the presidency is in deep trouble,” said Reuven Hazan, a professor of political science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
Apart from the scandal, Hazan said Weizman’s public support of a Syrian peace treaty was wrong.
“Israel needs a president who is above politics and can bring the country together at a time when the politicians will try to tear Israel apart with referendums on peace treaties,” he explained. “He is undermining the ability of the presidency to be a unifying factor, a voice for all Israelis.”
Hazan noted that in the past Weizman has spoken out against homosexuals and the religious. Add to that these political statements and “bit by bit he is angering more and more of Israeli society. If this scandal proves to be of a criminal nature, it will bring him down quickly because there will be nobody out there trying to soften his fall.”
But no matter what happens in the investigation, Hazan believes Weizman’s days are numbered in the presidency. “The right detests him and the left wouldn’t mind to see him out if [former Prime Minister Shimon] Peres replaces him,” he said. “Not too many tears will be shed if it wakes up tomorrow and resigns.”
Peres appears to be the clear favorite to succeed Weizman, according to Colette Avital, the former Israeli consul in New York who is now a member of the Knesset. But she said that when he announces his candidacy, opponents may try to hit him with one of the allegations journalist Yitzhak raised — that Weizman sold his Yachad Party’s three votes to the Labor Party following the 1984 elections for a $3.5 million loan. By siding with Labor, Likud was unable to form a government. That led to a national unity government in which Peres and Likud leader Yitzchak Shamir each served as prime minister for two years. A former Yachad Party official has denied the allegations and said his party had decided to support Peres well before the election.
Likud leader Blumenthal said her party had “no evidence except this revelation. We have not started [our own investigation]. We’ll leave it for the time being in the hands of the police. When [state prosecutor Edna] Arbel was asked where the investigations would go, she said everything is open.”
“I can tell you one thing,” Blumenthal added, “I hope it’s not true. You get sick if the political arena is so corrupt. It is hard for me — and for any personality like me who is in the public world — to even grasp the possibility that it could go that far. I hope it is not true; but it might be.”