Enthusiastic overt backing for Jimmy Carter's reelection by Defense Minister Ezer Weizman, a highly possible future prime minister, has infuriated other presidential candidates, particularly Sen. Edward Kennedy, whose ardent wooing of Jewish voters is exceeded by no other aspirant.
At issue here is a dubious political interlocking: presidential candidates avowing superior love of Israel to extract maximum Jewish support at the U.S. polls, and Israel seeking maximum leverage over the candidates' Mideast policies by playing favorities.
The warmth of Weizman's support for Carter, however, has carried the 1980 game to dangerous heights, far above the last overt Israeli intrusion into presidential politics when then-ambassador Yitzhak Rabin blessed the relection of Richard M. Nixon in 1972. Weizman's emotional blessing of Carter has not only roused the anger of Prime Minister Menachem Begin, who fears a reelected Carter would start to turn the screws on Israel for genuine West Bank autonomy but it has also invited retaliation against Israel by political forces backing all the other candidates. In an unusual statement yesterday, Begin proclaimed that Israel "does not and will not interfere" in the U.S. election.
The most surprising mash note the irrepressible Weizman has sent Carter came over Israeli television last week. Asked whether, in view of his public support for Carter, he was aware that Kennedy was also a candidate for president, Weizman replied: "I am aware that he will not be president of the United States."
That matched his mocking of Kennedy and all the Republican candidates in his interview with Mike Wallace on CBS' "60 Minutes" Feb. 2. Asked by Wallace if he was "willing to bet" on Carter's reelection, Weizman said he had "already laid a bet" and that his wager is "usually a bottle of whiskey."
Such blunt banter is poison in the hard-boiled world of presidential politics, where the potent Jewish vote often means rich financial contriubtions for a favored candidate. Antidotes to counteract the poison are now pouring out in unprecedented -- but still clandestine -- volume from the anguished camps of Carter's competitors.
The day after Weizman's message over Israeli television. Theodore Mann, chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, accused him in a statement incorporated in a private message to Prime Minister Begin of having "denigrated those other aspirants for America's highest office, Republican as well as Democrats."
Weizman's intrusion into the presidential election brought a rare rebuke from Israeli President Yitzhak Navon, whose honorary post is supposed to be above partisan politics. Confronted by a furious anti-Carter American Jewish leader at an Israel Bonds rally in Jerusalem last week, Navon blurted out: "Unlike our minister of defense, I do not meddle in American politics. I'm sorry, but it [Weizman's anti-Kennedy crack] was a grievous mistake."
Except for his 18-year voting record against raising U.S. defense spending, consistent until late last year, Kennedy would seem to be an unlikely target for Weizman. Kennedy has been telling American Jewish groups from New York to Beverly Hills that Carter has shortchanged Israel in U.S. aid (despite Carter's request for $2 billion for the 1981 fiscal year).
Kennedy sent a confidential emissary to Jerusalem with a private letter to the prime minister two weeks ago, presumably hardening his public argument that his support of Israel and its place in American strategic planning is beyond questioning.
Other candidates have also quietly complained to the Israeli Embassy and to the prime minister, demanding that Weizman be silenced. The top Jewish aid of one Republican candidate, speaking privately, described Weizman to us as "impudent, indiscreet and stupid," using Carter "to further his own ambition." Gordon Zacks, a key fundraiser for George Bush, told us Weizman is "ill-advised" to intrude in a presidential election.
Indeed, there is a mystery in the game of interlocking U.S.-Israeli politics that Weizman is playing, exploiting his top position in Begin's ruling coalition. Some prominent Jewish leaders here -- all of whom decry Weizman's intervention -- think it could boomerag on Weizman and undermine the intimate U.S.-Israel connection.
The concern holds that Carter showed more courage than any recent president in risking American Jewish wrath to pressure Israel for a Mideast settlement. Once reelected, he will be far freer to push the American case.
Both American Jewish leaders and most Israeli policians understand this, if Weizman does not. As one of the latter said privatly: "Carter said he would whip Teddy's ass. After he does that, he will whip Israels."