Jerusalem (CNSNews.com) - Israel's embattled President Ezer Weizman said he does not intend to resign over allegations that he wrongfully accepted hundreds of thousands of dollars in gifts, and he said he will continue to fulfil all his duties as President.
Moves are underway in the Knesset to have Weizman removed from office. But some analysts say it's not a legal question that is plaguing the country but an ethical one.
Weizman surprised the nation Sunday evening by announcing he would neither resign nor take a leave of absence, but would stay on and fight to prove his innocence.
"There is no middle way," Weizman told the nation. "One way is to fight for the truth to the very end; the other way is to resign. I have no intention of resigning."
The announcement that the largely ceremonial president would address the nation live for the first time since the scandal broke several weeks ago fueled speculation that Weizman intended to quit or at least would take leave of absence until a criminal investigation was concluded. Instead, he attested to his innocence.
"All my life, I've tried to act with sincerity and openness. Only one person knows my inner truth and that is myself," he read from a prepared statement. Weizman protested he had not "committed a crime" or "sinned" or "taken anything illegally."
"The opposite is true. I've tried all my life to give and to make a contribution," he said.
Weizman has admitted receiving gifts from a French millionaire between 1988-93 when he was a cabinet minister and Knesset member. The money was allegedly intended for the treatment of his son who was wounded in border skirmishes and subsequently died in a car accident.
Weizman said the money received was less than the $453,000 mentioned in reports by an investigative journalist, Yoav Yitzhak. But an initial investigation into the gifts revealed that Weizman may have had business connections with the Frenchman that continued after he became a cabinet minister.
Opposition Likud Knesset Member Yisrael Katz has begun to collect the 20 signatures necessary to initiate proceedings to remove Weizman from office. Katz told CNSNews.com that he decided to make the move after Weizman's address last night because it is "the only way" to remove him from office.
Legally, Weizman doesn't have to resign and cannot be tried while in office. But Katz said he should have stepped down for moral reasons because he has admitted taking gifts. If the matter is brought to a vote, three-fourths of the Knesset would have to vote in favor of Weizman's removal.
Professor Yosef Edrey, Dean of Law at Haifa University agreed that an ethical rather than legal issue was at stake at this point.
"The Israeli legal system is at a crossroads," Edrey told CNSNews.com. The current legal structure is based on the British system, which does not consider gifts and other funds from sources such as a lottery or inheritance as income. Income is defined as that which is gained for services rendered, in contrast to the American system, which considers any "acquisition to wealth" as income, "regardless of sources."
Israel is in the process of changing from the British to the American or comprehensive system, Edrey said. However, even in the British system, a public figure would face a problem if he said he received money as a gift but actually rendered some service before, during or after receiving it.
Weizman, a former head of the Israel Air Force and architect of Israel's victory over the Egyptian air force in the 1967 Six-Day War, said he had "never run from a fight" and would not "abandon this one either."
Edrey said it was not a "legal question" at this point but rather one of "public ethics." As president, Weizman is expected to promote national unity and moral values.
"First of all the president is a symbol. As a symbol [the position] should stay completely pure," Edrey said, adding he was disappointed that Weizman did not take leave.
Weizman reiterated on Monday that he intends to fulfill all of his duties as president. Specifically he said he would continue to exercise the power to grant pardons and swear in judges. Justice Minister Yossi Beilin, who called on Weizman last week to take leave, said the president should at least suspend these two activities.
Weizman is expected at a ceremonial event at the Knesset today. The president, who has been particularly outspoken in favor of the peace process, has been criticized by Knesset Members across the political spectrum for continuing in his position.
"It's so arrogant!" Zehava Galon, Meretz party Knesset Member was quoted as saying. "The president has embarrassed us."
"Weizman has missed the last opportunity to save what remained of his honor," Shinui Party leader Yosef Lapid said.
A spate of corruption revelations about political and business leaders has shaken the confidence of many Israelis.
Edrey said one could argue that there was either a "decline in ethics," or the developments were the result of the fact more leaders are being caught because of a climate of trying to "improve standards."
He favored the former, saying more public figures were being caught because they were being probed "more aggressively."