Is Weizmans scandal linked to peace talks

JERUSALEM– Even as Israeli and Syrian officials were meeting this week in West Virginia to tackle the issues that divide them, Israelis back home were engaged in their own rancorous debate.

So intense is the domestic political atmosphere that many in Israel are convinced the financial allegations that surfaced last week against President Ezer Weizman are somehow linked to the president's outspoken and controversial advocacy of peace talks.

An investigation into Prime Minister Ehud Barak's election campaign finances is also being attributed by some in his Labor/One Israel movement to political opponents determined to weaken him in advance of the planned national referendum on a Syrian peace deal.

Weizman, already the focus of a storm of protest over his unequivocal endorsement of the government's position on the peace process, has been accused by an Israeli journalist of receiving $450,000 between 1988 and 1995 from French industrialist Edouard Seroussi and failing to declare it.

State Attorney Edna Arbel announced Monday that her office would look into the affair — a decision that Weizman welcomed.

"She will get everything she needs" in the way of documents, he said. "I'm waiting for the conclusions and then I shall react."

Weizman said Tuesday night he has no intention of resigning. "This is a difficult time for me, but I'll get through it. I'll wait to hear the results of the state attorney's investigation," he said.

In an earlier statement, Weizman noted that Seroussi is not a resident or citizen of Israel and has no business interests in Israel, and that the gifts were given to him before he assumed the presidency. Their private relationship, he insists, was unconnected with his public roles during that period as a Cabinet minister and a Knesset member, and later as president. The law governing gifts to a public servant is therefore not applicable, he said.

Nonetheless, reporter Yoav Yitzhak has reiterated that Weizman drew money from the trust fund after he became president and thus violated the law.

Media reports said Weizman used the money for the care of his late son Shaul, who was wounded as a soldier in 1970 and later was killed in a car accident.

There is little doubt that his discomfort was welcomed by the political right, which has bristled at Weizman's supporting the government's peace initiatives. There is suspicion on the left that the timing of the disclosures were connected with the resumption of the talks with Syria.

A similar suspicion hangs over a Justice Ministry inquiry launched last week into a slew of charitable foundations linked to Barak's election campaign. Investigators will look into the funding of these foundations, and whether their activities contravened existing election funding laws.

Labor members charge that the Justice Ministry official involved in the probe is a known Likud activist, and that the inquiry is connected to the battle looming over referenda on any peace deals.

The Israeli ministerial committee on law decided Monday that any referendum would pass with a simple majority of votes.

But two key ministers voted against the decision: Natan Sharansky, leader of Yisrael B'Aliyah, and Yitzhak Levy, National Religious Party leader. They may back a Likud effort in the Knesset to pass a bill requiring a majority greater than 50 percent for the referendum. This would be harder to achieve, and would effectively require that a majority of Israel's Jews, and not its Arab citizens, support relinquishing the Golan.

Many in Barak's camp brand this demand as racism.

In any event, Barak will need a substantial majority if he is to make a "yes" decision stick and have it implemented without triggering civil strife.