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Israel's defense minister: superhawk turned quasi-dove

Israeli Defense Minister Ezer Weizman, currently the Jewish state's most charismatic politician, has upset his constituents by criticizing the government of which he is a key member -- and by calling for a national election.

He did so, moreover, while Prime Minister Menachem Begin was still in Washington to try to reach an understanding on Palestinian autonomy with President Carter.

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Immediate demands arose for Mr. Weizman's resignation, mainly from his own Herut wing of the incumbent Likud Party coalition. And predictions were made that Mr. Begin would reprimand, if not fire, him upon returning to Israel.

However, in Israeli politics, especially as conducted by Mr. Begin, precipitate action is rare. Mr. Weizman seems likely to retain his post for the time being, at least until his return from an imminent trip to the United States.

But his political future is cloudier than ever.

"Whatever it was that caused him to change his mind, and to come out with his guns blazing, the violent reaction of his party colleagues suggests that Mr. Weizman scored some direct and fairly deadly hits. But he may have hurt himself just as badly."

As an editorial judgment, this one by the Jerusalem Post seemed especially apt.

Some here believe that the burly ex-combat pilot and one- time commander of Israel's Air Force has virtually forfeited his chance of succeeding Prime Minister Begin as leader of the Likud bloc and as its frontrunner in the next national election -- even if it is held on schedule in the autumn of 1981.

Nor does Mr. Weizman have an organized group of followers that could challenge those of Mr. Begin within the party or form the nucleus of a new middle-of-the-road political movement based on a conciliatory peace policy toward Egypt.

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Ezer Weizman, over a period of time, has transformed himself from a superhawk to a quasi-dove, politically speaking. As a superhawk, he once advocated massive military action against the then Soviet-backed Egyptian forces waging a relentless war of attrition against Israel (from 1968 to 1970).

Now he appears more as a quasi-dove willing to show maximum flexibility in dealings with his nwly found Egypttian friends.

Egyptian public opinion, for example, ranks Mr. Weizman as the most popular and likable Israeli President Anwar Sadat speaks affectionately of him as "Ezra" and Egyptian Defense Minister Kamal Hassan Ali regards him as a bosom buddy.

Yet only 10 years ago, as the military command's chief of operations, the second-ranking position on Israel's General Staff, General Weizman argued for renewal of all-out war against Egypt.

"When we reach the suburbs of Cairo," he told an Army driver who saved his life by dodging a ferocious Egyptian barrage along the Suez Canal's eastern bank , "look for me -- you will drive me into the city."

Unlike his military colleagues, Mr. Weizman contended that Israel lost the war of attrition and that the Egyptians, by accepting the August 8, 1970, Cease fire, won three years' breathing space to advance their ground-to-air missiles and set the stage for their early and decisive successes in the Yom Kippur war of October 6, 1973.

"The years 1970-1973 were our years of self-deception," Mr. Weizman said. "In those years the seeds of the Yom Kippur mishap were planted. That is how we lost the fruits of the 'six-day war.'"

Hiz agonizing doubt about the strategy of digging in along the Bar-Lev Line and leaving the Israeli Air Force virtually alone in deep-penetration raids on Egypt was confirmed personally when his son, Shaul, was gravely wounded by Egyptian shells.

Some observers believe his sons's continued poor health made Mr. Weizman seize the opportunity for peace occasioned by President Sadat's trip to Jerusalem in November, 1977, and assume the role of the government's main advocate of compromise and mutual trust.

Born in this country and raised in Haifa, the city that enjoyed the best intercommunal relations between Jews and Arabs in British-administered Palestine , Mr. Weizman grew up in the shadow of national leadership as nephew of the late Dr. Chaim Weizmann -- the Zionist leader who became Israel's first president.


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