Israel's top law enforcement official ordered police today to conduct a criminal investigation of President Ezer Weizman, whose receipt of hundreds of thousands of dollars from a French textile magnate a decade ago has scandalized the nation.

The decision by Attorney General Elyakim Rubinstein is the latest blow to the prestige of Weizman, 75, a cantankerous war hero and one of the last of the Israeli statesmen instrumental in forming the nation. Although aides insisted that Weizman will remain in office as the investigation proceeds, the decision intensified pressure on him to resign or step aside temporarily.

Weizman, who occupies the largely ceremonial role of head of state, has been the subject of a steady drip of revelations concerning cash transfers of $453,000 from French businessman Edouard Saroussi. According to Israeli media reports, the money was deposited into accounts controlled by Weizman's attorney from 1988 to 1993--before he became president but while he was a member of parliament and a cabinet minister. The investigation seeks to determine whether Weizman broke the law by not paying taxes on the money or by doing favors for Saroussi in return.

Weizman has insisted that the cash, which he says amounted to about $250,000, was merely a gift from a close friend with no strings attached and that he had no obligation to report it. But police announced today that they have found "alleged evidence of a relationship of a business nature between Mr. Weizman and a firm linked to Mr. Saroussi between the years 1983 and 1984." Weizman was a private citizen until 1984, when he began serving as a cabinet minister under Prime Minister Menachem Begin.

Israeli television reported that what caught the eye of investigators was documentation suggesting Saroussi had hired Weizman as a consultant on economic activity in Africa. Weizman's attorney, Yaacov Weinroth, asserted that the president has done nothing wrong and will not step down despite his repeated insistence that he had no business dealings with Saroussi.

"There was one isolated incident in which the president was asked to give business advice, and he gave it," Weinroth said at a televised news conference. "At the time, he was a private citizen and absolutely not a public figure. He gave the advice, and he received money for that, so what's the issue? Therefore, the allegation that the president did not reveal something is very, very unfair."

Weizman is the first Israeli president to be placed under criminal investigation. The allegations against him were revealed by a freelance journalist, Yoav Yitzhak, three weeks ago, leading Rubinstein to open an investigation. After reviewing documents supplied by Weizman, Rubinstein requested police investigative help, but he emphasized at the time that he had not decided on a criminal inquiry. Today's announcement upped the ante, suggesting authorities have found new reasons to suspect malfeasance.

Before the announcement, nearly every newspaper in the country had called for Weizman to step down, while his allies in parliament, who reelected him for a second five-year term in 1998, have offered only tepid public support. Today's events only heightened the pressure on him.

Justice Minister Yossi Beilin said it would be "advisable" for Weizman to take a leave of absence during the investigation, and Tommy Lapid, leader of the centrist Change party, called on the president to resign under a grant of immunity from prosecution.

Prime Minister Ehud Barak said in a statement: "This is a difficult hour for all of us and especially for those who know and appreciate the president's tremendous contribution. I am convinced the president will know how to conduct himself during the investigation and according to its findings."

Weizman--a former air force chief, deputy army commander and defense minister--has been enormously popular in Israel. But many Israelis, having regarded him as a lovable if crotchety national uncle, have concluded that the money he accepted--and allegations that he may have been the recipient of a good deal more cash, as well as a luxury car--have made his position untenable.

The affair unfolds against a particularly lurid backdrop of other investigations of public figures here. Former prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu is under investigation on suspicion of accepting bribes. Netanyahu's justice minister, Tzahi Hanegbi, has been on charges of accepting bribes. And Aryeh Deri, former leader of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, is appealing his conviction last year on bribery charges.

Even Barak was questioned this week by authorities looking into allegations of campaign finance irregularities last spring.