Israel elects 'hawk for peace' as president: Architect of 1979 peace with Egypt returns to politics

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The Independent Online
ONE OF Israel's most dynamic and controversial political and military figures, Ezer Weizman, rejoined the ranks of the country's statesmen yesterday, when he was elected as the country's President.

The former RAF Spitfire pilot, commander of the Israeli air force, and strong advocate of reaching a negotiated peace with Arab enemies, defeated his rival, Dov Shilansky, a former parliamentary speaker, by 66 to 53 votes. The role of President is largely a ceremonial one. But Mr Weizman, an architect of Israel's peace agreement with Egypt in 1979, who believes in direct talks with the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), has never been slow in coming forward with his views.

His first reaction to his victory yesterday was cautious: 'I have decided on a minimum of celebrations because the mood in Israel is not joyous,' he said. But Labour supporters believe he will soon seek to exert a strong influence over Israel's political debate, primarily by injecting new momentum into the peace process.

Mr Weizman is now a Labour party member but was previously an important figure in the Likud Party of Menachem Begin, the former prime minister, whom he helped bring to power in 1977. He has not always seen eye to eye with the current Prime Minister, Yitzhak Rabin, and could prove to be a thorn in his side as he begins his five-year term.

Congratulating Mr Weizman on his election yesterday, Mr Rabin said he hoped the new President would work towards uniting the country at a difficult time. He succeeds Chaim Herzog, who has held the post for the past decade and has a largely non- controversial approach to the role.

Mr Weizman, nephew of Chaim Weizmann, who served as Israel's first president, is known in Israel primarily as the hawk-turned-dove. A maverick figure famous for his one-liners, he prefers to describe himself not as a dove, but as 'a hawk for peace'.

The key to his quixotic character may lie in his love for the cockpit, formed at an early age when he developed an ambition to become a fighter pilot. 'A pilot has to be able to be a team player and survive as a loner at once. He might sometimes have to leave the formation to fight a dogfight alone with the enemy,' said an Israeli pilot who knows Mr Weizman well.

At the outbreak of the Second World War, the young Mr Weizman ran away from home in Haifa to join the RAF in Egypt. After training as a Spitfire pilot he was posted to India. He went on to become commander of the Israeli air force, and helped bring victory to Israel in the 1967 Six-Day war.

As a leading member of Begin's Likud government, Mr Weizman developed a warm relationship with Anwar Sadat, the Egyptian president, and became instrumental in drawing up the Egyptian peace treaty. But he resigned from the Likud in 1980, frustrated with Begin's unwillingness to build on the accord. He later joined the Labour party.

Mr Weizman's personal life was hit by tragedy when his son Saul suffered a debilitating head wound in the 1973 Yom Kippur war, and later died in a car accident. In 1989 Mr Weizman resigned from the Likud-Labour unity government after a dispute over his alleged contacts with the PLO, leaving politics in February last year.