An article Monday incorrectly reported what post Israeli President Ezer Weizman held during the 1967 Middle East war. He was deputy chief of staff. (Published 01/12/2000)

Israelis have made a habit of excusing their cantankerous president, Ezer Weizman, who at various times has slighted gays, women, those in favor of peace with the Arabs and those against.

Unvarnished and unabashed, the stooped 74-year-old leader has always managed to patch things up with the public, largely because whatever his deficiencies in tact or discretion, there has never been a serious challenge to his personal integrity.

However, all that changed recently when it was revealed that he had received $453,000 from a wealthy French businessman. The disclosure has threatened Weizman's position as never before, and has led to a swelling chorus of calls for his resignation.

The money was transferred to Weizman by Edouard Saroussi, a French real estate and textile magnate, between 1988 and 1993--before Weizman became president but while he was serving as a member of the Israeli parliament and a cabinet minister.

According to Yoav Yitzhak, the Israeli journalist who disclosed the story, Weizman continued drawing from the account in which Saroussi had deposited the funds for two years after he became president in 1993.

Weizman has acknowledged receiving the money, large portions of which were channeled into the accounts of his wife and daughter. He insists it was a personal gift from "an extremely close friend of my family." There has been no sign that Saroussi had business interests in Israel, or that Weizman did any favors in return for the cash. Saroussi, who lives in France and Monte Carlo, has been largely unavailable for comment; his wife died a month ago.

The controversy has dismayed many Israelis not only because of the president's popularity and credentials as a war hero but also because of what he is supposed to represent. In a country of venomous sectarian debate and vast political divisions, the Israeli presidency, conceived as a largely ceremonial and symbolic job, is supposed to unify the nation above the partisan fray.

Weizman, forthright by nature, has not always conformed to that role. Just last month, he publicly took sides in the exceptionally divisive national debate on peace with Syria, saying he would support an agreement even if it meant giving back the Golan Heights. He even threatened to resign the presidency if Israelis voted against such a deal in a referendum. Residents of the Golan and right-wingers were furious.

Still, the president is the closest thing Israel has to a favorite national uncle. A former fighter pilot, he was the air force commander during Israel's victory in the 1967 Middle East War. He makes a point of visiting the family of virtually every Israeli killed in a terrorist attack or while serving in the armed forces. Many Israelis say he embodies the national self-image--prickly on the outside, but soft at heart.

"This is a tragic end for a man with too many principles and too little self-restraint," Sima Kadmon wrote in the mass circulation Israeli newspaper, Yedioth Aharonoth. "It is a sad end for a man who is used to being forgiven for almost everything. Not this time."

Since the transfers were divulged, nearly every newspaper in the country has called for Weizman to resign. In the Knesset, Israel's parliament, a number of lawmakers, most of them from right-of-center opposition parties, have also urged him to quit.

Weizman, for his part, has insisted he will not resign. He says he will cooperate fully with an investigation by the state prosecutor, although he said last week that to "the astonishment of the lawyers," some documentation pertaining to the cash has "disappeared as if it never existed."

Although he insists he did no wrong, he has not offered a full explanation for the cash or his relationship with Saroussi. "I didn't commit a crime, I didn't take bribes," he said. "I asked my lawyer if I could take a present from a friend, and that's what I did."

The furor surrounding the money given to Weizman and the appearance of impropriety has been nearly matched by the inquiry into how the story surfaced.

Yitzhak, an investigative journalist, revealed the story New Year's Eve. Several days later, Israeli newspapers reported that Weizman's associates suspected the information had come from Ofer Nimrodi, a media magnate and publisher.

Nimrodi reportedly had hoped the president would pardon him for a wiretapping conviction. Newspapers reported that when Weizman refused to grant the pardon, Nimrodi's father threatened to "finish off" the president. Weizman himself seemed to confirm the reports by saying that "not pretty things" had transpired between himself and the Nimrodis.

The Nimrodis denied they had threatened the president or supplied information about him, and Yitzhak, the journalist, also denied they were the source of the story.

Now the scandal is the subject of a daily drumbeat of revelations in the press and calls for Weizman's resignation. There have even been stories that Shimon Peres, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate and former prime minister, is the Knesset's choice to succeed Weizman.

"In this kind of situation, Weizman, no matter what he says, cannot come out smelling like a rose," Dan Margalit wrote in the newspaper Haaretz last week. "Nonetheless, there is still time for him to make a wise move and resign now."

CAPTION: Israeli President Ezer Weizman is under mounting pressure to step down after cash gift disclosure.