THE EL AL FIGHT is completely full before Ezer Weizman and the negotiating party finally boards. Upstairs in the 747 the lounge area has been transformed into first class with about 10 seats. Suddenly there is noise, commotion, clatter, excitement, then an imposing creature appears, surrounded by his entourage, Air Force generals, lawyers, bodyguards and his wife.
The pilots come out of the cockpit to welcome him. He grabs them, kisses some of them, claps them on the back, ruffles their hair. There is laughter, joking, a lot of male camaraderie. He paces up and down restlessly, waiting for the plane to take off from Ben Gurion Airport for the peace talks in Washington.
Ezer Weizman, tall, energetic, charismatic. Ezer Weizman, irreverent, outrageous, flyboy, playboy. Ezer Weizman, bright, serious. Ezer Weizman, 54, the hope of Israel and probably the next prime minister.
Shortly after the plane takes off and breakfast is served, he comes over to where a reporter is sitting, begins parrying, testing, telling stories, always refusing a formal interview.
He talks about the first time Sadat came to Jerusalem last year. Weizman had been in a serious automobile accident several days before, had a broken leg, a few broken ribs, was forced - temporarily - to use a catheter and a plastic bag."When I met Sadat," he says, "I got out of a very sick bed out of admiration for a great man. He was the first Arab who had ever stood at attention for an Israeli honor guard."
He was so impressed with Sadat, he says, that despite being in great pain, he got out of bed again the next day to see him off at the airport. Sadat, in his sedan, spotted Weizman being brought to his car in a wheelchair.
"He jumped out of his car and came running over to me and kissed me on both cheeks in the wheelchair."
"We had our first heart-to-heart talk in Jerusalem and I found him to be very wise and sincere and courageous."
Later, he says, when he went to Cairo, he was hobbling up the stairs to meet Sadat, when Sadat came out to meet him, yelling, "Ezerrrrrrrrr, why do you need a stick to walk?" With that, says Weizman, "I took the bloody stick and tossed it away, much to Sadat's delight."
Then he gets serious. "This whole thing has been a very emotional, very warm experience. But if they double-cross us," he shakes his finger, "if they double-cross us, we'll be in Egypt like Flynn. If they don't keep their word, watch out."
He paces back and forth again on the plane, wanders in and out of the cockpit, does imitations of various Israeli ministers leaving everyone in stitches, then comes back for some more chitchat.
"We're all staying at the Madison, you know. "We're on one floor, the Egyptians are on the next. Of course we'll spend the first day drilling holes in the floors and ceilings so we can listen in on each other."
After this offering he returns to his seat, then gets up again and, on the way back to the cockpit, he says, "These peace negotiations are the most exciting things that have happened to me in my life. My only regret is that my father is not alive to be here. He would have been in seventh heaven." And he points expressively to the sky.
Ezer Weizman was born in Haifa, the son of a Russian immigrant (who dropped an n from his last name) and a mother who was born and raised in one of the first Zionist settlements in what is now Israel.
He is what you might call an Israeli aristocrat, a member of one of Israel's first families - and related to just about everyone. His uncle Chaim Weizman was the first president of Israel. His brother-in-law was Moshe Dayan, who married (and later divorced) Weizman's wife's sister Ruth.
He began his career, before Israel's War of Independence, as a pilot in the British Royal Air Force and to this day he still behaves and speaks more like an Englishman than an Israeli. He founded the Israeli Air Force, commanded it for eight years, fought in five wars and was head of the General Staff Division.
He was a businessman, later minister of transport in the cabinet and a leader in the Herut (conservative) party.
To many it is amazing that Ezer Weizman ever achieved any of these positions. And he knows it. For in his whole life he has never refrained from saying exactly what he thinks, how he feels, where he stands. And he appears afraid of no one, despite the trouble his outspokenness sometimes causes.
Last June, before Camp David, Ezer Weiman's mouth nearly cost him his position as minister of defense and might well have cost Israel the peace which now seems so near.
What he did was take on his prime minister, Menachem Begin, and his foreign affairs minister Moshe Dayan, accusing them of not wanting peace. They in turn attacked him for being soft on the Egyptians, of being naive, of being a dupe of Sadat. Reportedly, during one meeting Weizman walked into the cabinet meeting room, and tore a "Shalom" (peace) poster off the wall, accusing Begin and Dayan of not knowing the meaning of the world. Still Weizman prevailed and for reasons almost nobody can quite understand he was not fired.
It was finally at Camp David that Weizman's rapport with Anwar Sadat made it possible for the Israelis and the Eygptians to reach an agreement.
After several hours on the plane, Weizman leaps out of his chair, plunks down next to a reporter and announces that he is prepared to give an interview. "I'm not going to tell you much," he says. "I'm not giving interviews these days. I'm going to be very careful. Beside I have been warned not to talk."
He says this as though the very warning has forced him to accept the challenge.
"I have always said exactly what I believed," he says. "Fortunately and unfortunately.Some people say I could have gone further and earlier if I hadn't said what I thought. Perhaps," he grins, "I've mellowed and wisened to the tricks of the game, and my good wife watches me, warns me not to overdo it." He glances over his shoulder at his wife who is smiling, only a touch of concern on her face. He nods to reassure her. Then turns back.
"Thank God I am the way I am," he says.
What worries his wife, his friends, his colleagues, and now the prime minister and the foreign minister, is not only Weizman's tendency to shoot off his mouth, but his image.
For years he has been the glamorous playboy, taking risks in his airplanes that nobody else took, drinking hard and long, being a favorite of Israeli women, shooting from the hip, not always unaware of the dramatic inact of his behavior.
Take his Spitfire for instance, the plane he originally started out with when he founded the Israeli Air Force. He has bought one for himself, painted it black and red and likes to fly it as a hobby. However, he's not flying the "spit" much these days.
"Since I've been in office I have no time for it," he says. "Besides, some say I shouldn't." And here it comes " . . . They say it's bad for my image. It looks like I'm showing off."
"A commander should have some kind of personal hallmark, which sets him apart from everyone else," writes Weizman in his book "On Eagle's Wings." There is a certain degree of theatricality in a commander's personality - the way he speaks, his tone, the way he bounds up the platform to address his men, and after such expressions of his natural desire to win their hearts and be the object of the emulation."
"I can understand the image of me which has developed over the years," he says. "I resent it, but I understand it. I do fly off the handle. And I do like to play." He rubs his chin in amusement. "It's just that I'm not a boy any longer. Certain things I've done could have given the impression of being a playboy," he admits. "It didn't just develop in the last two years. I've had a knock to drive a little faster than most people, to drink somewhat more than my next-door neighbor, to fly a bit lower than other pilots. But people have a tendency to judge me on my outward acts of behavior instead of their looking into my other achievements, like building the air force with the kind of spirit and morale it has. But I'm not sorry I did any of these things."
He adds with some satisfaction that Playboy magazine recently asked him for an interview. "I turned them down," he says.
There is a running argument as to whether Weizman's behavior and his openness have hurt or helped him. But today in Israel he is by far the most popular political figure. There is a real admiration for him among the people, and his glamor, his appeal is almost Kennedyesque. He is recognized as the one who held Camp David together and the Israelis admire him for his courage and honesty in the midst of an atmosphere of bureaucratic secrecy and deception."
"I live very well with the Israeli press," he says, "despite the fact that some of them really tear me to pieces. I try to turn the other cheek. Sometimes I will think, "Well, he's a real son of a bitch.' Other times I say to myself, 'Weizman, you better pay attention to what he says."
"Sure," he says, "I would have arrived earlier if I'd checked myself. But what the hell, I've arrived."
He pauses for a moment, looks a bit chagrined, and says, "Of course, if you ask me if I'd have done some things differently, the answer is 'yes.'"
Probably one of the things he might have done differently would be to have deleted a description of Prime Minister Begin which he included in his book two years ago:
" . . . despite one or two attempts to paper over the cracks, the conflicts between me and Menachem Begin, the head of the party, began to emerge. I respect him, I presume that respect is mutual. But we are poles apart in our characters, our viewpoints and our personal traits. There was the friction you get between men who lack a "chemical affinity."
Ezer Weizman smiles a bit sheepishly, murmurs something under his breath. What can he say really? Practically nobody in Isreal actually likes Begin. As one very high government official close to Begin will say quite openly, "Begin is not a likeable man." Even Begin's press counselor, Dan Pattir, speaks disparagingly of Begin's personality. Begin, himself, knows that he's not going to win any Mr. Congeniality contests. And though he tries not to show it, he is said to privately resent the charisma and appeal of Ezer Weizman. And it is reportedly Begin who has specifically put the word out that Weizman should keep a low profile.
He's a wise and clever man," he says of Begin. "People underestimate his intellect. And I think at Camp David Begin came to realize that this was reality, this was the best way. The prime minister realized a major change in attitude of the Egyptians. He realized he was living in the world of the late 70s and that in the early '80s there will be far more of an interdependency between nations. On top of all this Sadat has come to Jerusalem. He realizes we need peace."
Weizman says that he was pleasantly surprised the day Begin won the elections when he came to see him at 7 a.m. to congratulate him. "He said to me, 'Ezer, the one thing we must do is to prevent the war.' It was one of the happiest hours of my life. It's not so much that Begin has changed. It's the situation that's changed."
It is also a matter, feels Weizman, of Prime Minister Begin growing with the office. "I have no doubt about it," he says. "And I make no bones about it. I know how differently I am after I've gotten an assignment than before. When you have a lot of reponsibility, you sleep differently than when you're in the opposition, as Begin was before he became prime minister.
"I react differently to things now that I'm defense minister," he says.
During the Camp David peace talks the great joke among the Israelis was that though the world thought it was an attempt to get the Arabs and the Jews together, the real accomplishment had been to get Ezer Weizman and Moshe Dayan together.
Their on and off animosity toward each other is no secret in Israel, partly because the two are both strong-minded and opinionsted. and partly because the Weizmans felt some resentment toward the way Dayan treated his wife, Ruth, Re'uma Weizman's sister, both during their marriage and through their messy divorce.
Also both of them competed for the same glamorous image, not only as soldier and heroes, but as politicians and ladies' men.
Today, after his success at Camp David, Ezer Weizman can be generous about his former brother-in-law, Moshe Dayan. For one thing, the world in Israel is that Dayan is on his way out. Once the dashing, legendary military genius, with the black patch over his eye, the invincible reputation, Dayan, at 63 now looks old and tired. He is almost blind in his "good" eye and has such a bad back he often has to take to his bed. And, as Israeli political observers point out, Dayan, despite his reputation, has never been No. 1. He has always been everybody's No. 2. from Golda Meir, to Rabin and now Begin. Weizman, on the other hand, is 10 years younger and raring to go.
"At Ismalia last year," says Weizman, "Sadat asked me how old Moshe was. I told him he was 63 and Sadat said, "he looks like he's in his 70s. The six-day war made him old."
In his book Weizman writes of Dayan:
"The intervening years (since 1953) have taken their cruel toll of him, under-mining his self confidence and tarnishing his image. But at the time, in the early '50s, he was a brilliant commander, an unconventional, first-rate military leader."
And later, after Dayan had been crushed and buried in an archeological dig which nearly left him for dead in 1968, Weizman writes:
"Since that time, much has happened. That gigantic figure has been whittled away. But anyone who says he isn't a brave man, doesn't know Moshe Dayan."
Now on the plane, Weizman will lean back pensively, solemnly when he speaks of Dayan."First of all," he says, "the reports of our problems with each other have been highly exaggerated. We had our differences of opinions. We had our whims and our wishes. And he was always senior to me. He's older than I am. But I don't think we needed Camp David to get us together. Of course we haven't always seen eye to eye. For one thing he's army and I'm air force. I must say it will be very interesting to see what happenes in the next few days . . . " (The two men are the only Israeli cabinet ministers participating in the current talks.)
He gets up and wanders around the plane again, finally picking up an Israeli newspaper and skimming the front page.
Suddenly he gives a shriek and curses loudly. "Shimon Peres ist ein schvantz," he shouts in Yaddish.
Then in English, "Can you imagine! My best friend in the Knesset, saying these things about me!" he says angrily of Peres, the head of the Labor Party.
The other men in the plane begin to laugh hysterically when he is asked what "schrantz" means. (It is a particularly coarse reference to male genitals.)
"Now Ezer," chortles one, "now you will have to get yourself out of this one."
His wife gives him an admonishing look and he gives her the same look back, rather defiantly.
Later he will say, "I am an emotional man."
It is his emotions which have gotten him in trouble more often than not, yet it is also his emotions which have earned him his accomplishments and the loyal support and affection of his friends.
"I wouldn't want to judge whether being emotional is more or less of a manly thing," he says. "I don't know about that. I do get a hollow feeling in my belly from time to time, that funny feeling in my throat. I cry at funerals and my eyes get wet at a nice wedding, in any human encounter, really, from birth to battle. I suppose the trick of the game is to know how to control it. I think anyone who says he is not emotional is not getting what he should out of life. I suppose you could say the same thing about sexuality too.
"I sit in the movies and I get tight in the throat," he says. "And now I wonder how I'll feel when I become a grandfather for the first time a month from now." His daughter, married to a pilot, is expecting.
"When your only son goes to battle and comes back damaged (his son was shot in the temple in the last war on the Egyptian lines and has not been the same since), then anyone who can say you're not disturbed, moved, in an emotional upheaval is what is commonly known as a hard-assed bastard and I don't like them."
It was this emotionalism of Weizman's that appealed to Anwar Sadat when they first met, and later which brought the two of them so close together at Camp David. For Sadat himself is an emotional man.
"I believe in human emotion," says Weizman. "And it's defintely what happened between Sadat and myself.Chemistry is the whole essence of a human being, the whole mentality, the whims and wishes, the negative and the positive. In Sadat I find a man of emotion and courage."
He catches himself after a moment and quickly adds, "Of course you can't build a future on chemistry. It's like Gamassi, for instance." (The Egyptian war minister, Gen. Abdel Ghani Gamassi, who was fired by Sadat after Camp David) "I was sorry to see him go. I'll have to find a way to talk to a new man.And if there is no chemistry between him and me we'll have to find a new way to find peace. We must go forward and take a highly calculated risk. Tomorrow Sadat may disappear. He always talks about resigning."
It is important to Weizman, his personal relationships with the Egyptians. "We've been fighting with them since we were youngsters," he says. "I've dropped bombs on them. Perhaps because we've been bleeding each other, we care more about finding out what makes the other tick. But they are all just human beings. Some are good open-hearted people and some are S.O.B.'s.
"We shall have to get used to being with each other. though," he says. "We'll have to overcome the results of our cultural and religious differences. For 30 years now Israel has been hermetically sealed. We've had more in common with the British and the French than we have had with our neighbors in Egypt, or any of the other Arab countries.
"I sincerely believe that if we don't find a rapport between us and the Egyptians then we will quickly resort to 2,000 tanks and missiles and who the hell wants that. I've been trying to persuade, to preach peace for the last eight or nine months . . . " he begins to get excited, then starts to laugh as he hears himself getting a little carried away. "And blah, blah, blah . . . ," he says, mocking himself.
There was a time when Ezer Weizman was strongly against giving away any territories at all, either in the Sinai or on the West Bank and Gaza. Now he says, "I haven't changed that much. If there had been a Sadat 10 years ago I would have acted the same way. What has changed is Egypt. My God, in my book there is a streak of Arabs. I have always had close Arab friends. Why, some of my best friends are Moslems," he says, enjoying this little joke. "My parents spoke fluent Arabic."
He gets a mischievous look in his eye. "I speak some Arabic, and I try to throw Arabic words into the conversation when I'm talking to the Egyptians so they'll think I know more than I do. Now they're very careful what they say around me."
He talks proudly about visiting Egypt, how he walked down the streets, stopping in little shops along the way and how the Egyptians would recognize him and call out his name in affectionate greetings.
"I was completely at home there," he says.
Still, he recalls a conversation he had with an Egyptian general, who was talking about their tank buildup. "I asked him what he wanted all those tanks for," says Weizman. "And he replied that they wanted them for protection. 'Protection from whom?' and he said 'From you.'"
To Weizman the general's fear reflect the same fears that the Israelis have. "He said to me, 'Today we talk to Weizman, but tomorrow it may be somebody else.' And the Egyptians did have some nasty experiences with us. Sadat told me that after the October War, 'Ezer, I have no complexes.' You know the first thing I said to Sadat when he came to Jerusalem, I said, 'Mr. President, I have one thing to say. Full marks on the October War.' And he said, 'Let's not talk about war.'"
Weizman says that getting used to the idea of peace with the Egyptians will take the Israelis a few years. "For the beseiged Israelis it is like outer space. The average Israeli isn't prepared. I've heard people say, 'Let's go have a last look at the Sinai.' The idiots haven't realized that they'll be able to go there when there is peace. The average Israeli is very distrustful of his neighbors. He expects to get killed. It's a claustrophobic way of life.
"People are geared to be mentally guarded and watchful. Every third family has suffered a loss. This causes tension. I got a poem the day before I left from one of my officers. It said, 'Bless your journey, but be careful.' We are distrustful, careful. Everyone says, even Carter said to me, 'But you are about to have peace, you should be dancing in the streets.' But there's a different mentality here. We have to live with danger."
He is obviously still worried about accusations that he has sold out to the Egyptians, allowed Carter to manipulate him. Yet he is unfailing in his admiration for both Carter and Sadat.
"You have a very good, tough president," he says. "You Americans underestimate him. I like him." He smiles, "And I like Hamilton Jordan too. He's a really wild one," and he chuckles, shaking his head in admiration.
This reminds him once again about Camp David.
"In my wildest dreams," he says, "I never believed this would happen. Carter just locked us up. We would have had to be non-human beings in that pleasant environment if we hadn't created a situation that made us almost forced to decide."
He says at Camp David that there was a kind of chicken game going on about which one would quit first, which one would pack up and leave. "I don't know how much that influenced us," he says, "but at several points, most of us wanted to just pack up and say the hell with it and let's go. But we didn't have the courage to be the first to leave. And I think that attitude forced us all to stay and make decisions."
And he does not for one moment underestimate his own close friendship with Sadat. "I like to drink," he says, "and I kept offering Sadat drinks. He would laugh and say, 'Ezerrrrrrr, I am not a kafer (sinner) like you. You are a kafer, Ezerrrrrrrrr.'"
And he launches into his Sadat imitation.
Lunch is served and Weizman drinks a Bloody Mary or two, becomes even more jovial and loquacious, regales the entire cabin with stories and jokes, keeping everyone entertained and laughing. The pilots take turns coming out of the cockpit to spend some time with Weizman.
Most of them, he explains, are pilots he trained for the air force when they were very young. He first spills a drop of drink on his shirt, then spills some of his food on his trousers. His wife fusses with him, pulling K2 spot cleaner out of her bag and spraying him with it, telling him he can't arrive in New York like that. He seems unconcerned. After lunch he stretches on the floor and takes a nap.
Later, he comes back for a continuation of the interview, still sleepy. He talks about Zionism, apologizing that he has just awakened. "I just woke up five minutes ago," he says yawning. "I'm no good at this. I need at least 7 or 8 hours sleep a night."
"Zionism," he says finally, "is to be able to express Jewish nationhood. It is our identity. It is for whoever wants to identify himself as a Jew with his own land, in his own country, Israel. To some it's Israel, to some it's Zion, to some it's Palestine. I was born in Palestine as a Palestinian. To some what is know as Judea and Smaria (the West Bank) is the crux of the heart of our history, the background of Judaism." He gets a challenging look on his face. "I purposely said that in order to plunge into a discussion of the West Bank because you would have gotten to it anyway."
The West Bank is the real problem with the Israelis. The Sinai they can give back to Egypt with few problems. It has no emotional context, but to many Jews, the West Bank is the land that was theirs 2,000 years ago and for which they are willing to turned, and for which they are willing to die. To give it back seems to them a sacrilege, literally. This is also an issue Carter wants to discuss during this round of talks. The Israelis do not.
"Couldn't it be possible that the West Bank be shared?" Weizman asks. "That ther could be autonomy for the local inhabitants and more than a footing from the military view, not to mention the historical point of view to the Israelis. Call it whatever you want. We Israeli are not strangers to the West Bank and the local inhabitants are not foreigners to us.
"If the Egyptians are back on the Sinai, we'll have to find a way to live together and work together with the West Bank and Gaza. Call it altruisia if you want."
But he does add a disclaimer. "The West Bank is linked to Zionism through history, through religion and the Bible. You can give up El Arish (in the Sinai) but you can't give up being a partner at least, in Hebron or Nablus (West Bank). We did agree yo be flexible and understanding and not zealots, but one cannot deny that we did recreate the state of the Jews historically. It's not exactly like a newly founded state of California."
He shakes his head, pleased with the way he has handled this discussion, then smiles. "So", he says. "How do you like that?"
When Weizman's only son Shaul was sent to the Suez Canal during the height of the 1970 war, where he was eventually wounded, his father sent him a letter. It read: "When you were born, I said to your mother that I had just one hope - that you wouldn't have to go to war as we did. Now, as you set off for battle, I ask myself, what was the mistake my generation made? Where did we sin, that you too have to go to war?"
His son Shaul had the letter in his pocket when he was wounded.
Today, Ezer Weizman feels even more strongly that other families, that his grandchildren will not have to face the anguish of war, the pain that he had when his son suffered permanent mental damage.
"I'd love to live the year 2000 and see this molded into a whole nation," he says. "We're not a nation yet. There's still a lot of molding to be done, a framework in which to use the Camp David language. Revolutions are usually easier than dealing with the results of revolution. It's more exciting and dramatic to fight than to sit back and figure out things. Some Israelis look at peace in a peculiar way. It's new to them, new to us. But I have a feeling we're on the verge of a new era."
He jumps from his seat excitedly and stands in the center of the lounge area, stretching his arms back and forth. Finally he says, "I wouldn't have missed it for all the tea in China."