"Without me," said Ezer Weizman, "Shimon Peres would not be the prime minister."
The setting hardly befitted a man who claims to be the kingmaker of Israel's national unity government. Weizman's office, down the hall from where Peres presides over the government, is small and spartan, decorated with reminders of the occupant's military and political past.
For most of the first six months of the national unity government, Weizman has labored in relative obscurity behind a nondescript door in a corridor of the prime minister's bureau. But events of the last few weeks, the resumption of a dialogue between Israel and Egypt, the faint stirrings in the moribund Middle East peace process, have thrust him into the limelight once again.
When Peres went to Europe late last month, he took Weizman with him. On the surface it was an odd choice, for Weizman is a minister without portfolio whose principal mandate is to look after Israel's 700,000 Arab citizens. But Weizman also is known here as "Mr. Egypt," great friend of the late Egyptian president Anwar Sadat, and Peres knew that in Bucharest he would be meeting a secret envoy from Sadat's successor, Hosni Mubarak.
A few days later, when Mubarak dispatched two more envoys to Jerusalem, Weizman was one of only a handful of Israeli government ministers who met with them in Peres' home and office. And in the days since then, he has played a leading role in defending the government's initially favorable response to the so-called Mubarak initiative against right-wing criticism that it was all "a trap" or a "public relations ploy" before Mubarak's current trip to Washington.
"I prefer in general to say yes more than no," Weizman said. "One can always say no."
"Weizman pushes Peres in directions that Peres wants to be pushed," said one senior official who is close to the prime minister.
Implicit in this observation is the fact that the divisions in Israel's national unity government are not just between the Labor Party and Likud bloc, but within the two main government partners. Peres and Weizman were notably more enthusiastic about the recent flurry of Egyptian-Israeli contacts than were some other Labor Party officials, among them Peres' old party rival, Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin.
The photographs in Weizman's office recall his past, and some would say his transformation from hawk to dove. On one wall, there is a picture of Weizman in a British Spitfire during World War II, when he learned to fly and fight, and on another a U.S.-made F15, the cutting edge of today's Israeli Air Force. Weizman flew in that Air Force, later commanded it and finally oversaw its development as minister of defense.
Other pictures in the room recall Weizman's proudest political moment -- the 1978 Camp David peace conference. He is pictured there with Sadat, who became his friend, and Jimmy Carter. And on the wall directly behind Weizman's small desk, there is a picture in which he takes special pride. It shows the young Air Force officer seated at a table in the King David Hotel, flanked by Israel's two most bitter political rivals -- David Ben-Gurion, prime minister from the Labor Party, and Menachem Begin, founder of the Herut Party, the key element in today's right-wing political alignment known as the Likud bloc.
Weizman used that picture during last summer's parliamentary election campaign here to symbolize his stance somewhere between the country's two main political power centers. At the head of a new party he called Yahad (Together), he refused to say whether he preferred a Labor or Likud-led government to emerge from the election.
When the election produced a virtual deadlock between Labor and Likud, Weizman's party, which captured three seats in parliament, held the balance of power. His decision to join the Labor Party doomed any chance that the Likud could assemble a parliamentary majority on its own, making a government of national unity the only realistic alternative. Weizman's claim to have "made" Peres prime minister is no idle boast.
Now that the election is over, Weizman can afford to be more candid. Forced out by Begin as defense minister in a Likud government because of differences over implementing the Camp David accords, Weizman said in an interview this week, "I did not want to see the Likud back in power. As Sadat used to say, 'for sure.' "
So, at 60, Weizman has cast his lot with the Labor Party, and with its more dovish wing. He suggested that when the national unity government breaks up he would not mind being named foreign minister in a new Labor-led government under Peres.
In the meantime, Weizman is devoting most of his time to the myriad problems of Israel's Arab minority, a subject he calls "fascinating" and "a hell of an Israeli problem." He has eliminated various special government offices dealing with Arabs, hoping thereby to force a small measure of integration in Israeli society, and he is seeking to encourage economic development in the heavily Arab sections of the country.
"The animosity between Arabs and Israelis is so great now, worse than before," he said. "I think it is due to the long years of war, and to a basic, latent fear and perhaps lack of confidence. There is a lack of confidence in Israel to the whole peace process."
Weizman clearly does not share that lack of confidence. Begin, he said, was a "hawk" at Camp David because he seized the opening for peace with Egypt. Weizman would like to be known in the same way, as "a hawk for peace." At the same time, he shares in the almost unanimous Israeli consensus on the limits of compromise. "I do hope Jordan's King Hussein understands that he will never have Jerusalem back," Weizman said.
In a recent televised debate with Moshe Arens of the Likud bloc, Weizman further solidified his image as an exponent of negotiations with the Arabs by referring to the late Fahd Kawasme, the exiled mayor of Hebron in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, with the Hebrew phrase that means "of blessed memory."
The remark shocked some Israelis because Kawasme, shortly before his assassination in Amman, Jordan, in December, had been elected to the executive committee of the Palestine Liberation Organization. But Weizman brushed aside the criticism, recalling that in the various stages of his career -- as fighter pilot, defense minister and now champion of renewed contacts with Egypt -- his relationship with the Arabs has never been simple or one-dimensional.
"I kicked him out of the country," Weizman said, recalling one early morning in 1980 when Kawasme was expelled from the West Bank following the murder of six Jews in Hebron. As he pushed Kawasme into a helicopter that would take him to Lebanon, and from there to exile in Amman and eventually a violent death, Weizman said he apologized to the departing mayor.