Defying much of Israel's political elite and virtually all the national media, President Ezer Weizman today refused to resign or take a leave of absence as a criminal investigation into his financial dealings began.

In a blunt, damn-the-torpedoes two-minute statement delivered live on prime time television, the 75-year-old head of state vowed to "fight to the end," insisted on his "honesty and integrity" and said if he had erred, it was a "human mistake, made in all innocence."

Looking drawn but determined, Weizman said he would not take a leave of absence, as Justice Minister Yossi Beilin urged him to do last week. He said he is ready to submit to a police questioning about his relationship with a French textile tycoon who reportedly gave him hundreds of thousands of dollars starting in the late 1980s.

"I've never abandoned a fight and I won't abandon this fight either," the former fighter pilot, air force chief and deputy army commander declared.

Weizman read his statement at his official residence here. No journalists were present to question him afterward. When he finished with his prepared text, the cameras cut away to a continuing firestorm of allegations and negative commentary directed at him from across the political spectrum.

"We expect more from the president," said Yuli Tamir, the leftist immigration minister. "The president should have taken a leave of absence."

Shaul Yahalom, a leader of the right-wing National Religious Party, said: "The president made a mistake yet again tonight."

Weizman's statement followed three weeks of uproar over reports that French millionaire Edouard Saroussi deposited $453,000 into an account controlled by Weizman's lawyer beginning in 1988. At the time, Weizman was a cabinet minister and lawmaker, but the deposits apparently continued after he became president in 1993.

Weizman has called the cash transfers a "gift" from a close friend, and at first he said he had no business connections with Saroussi. But following reports that Weizman had done some consulting for Saroussi in 1983-84, Attorney General Elyakim Rubinstein last week ordered a full police investigation into whether the president had reported the gifts in full, paid taxes on them or done favors for Saroussi in return.

Virtually every newspaper in the country has called for Weizman to resign or take a leave from his mostly ceremonial job. In response, the president apparently decided to appeal directly to the Israeli public, with whom his cranky persona and record as a war hero have always struck a sympathetic chord.

It is unclear if the strategy will succeed. Since the cash gifts were revealed, polls have registered a sharp drop in support for Weizman. Today, Justice Minister Beilin said that while the investigation is underway he would ask Weizman not to perform two of his main roles: swearing in judges and granting pardons or reduced sentences to convicts.

One of the rare voices of support for Weizman came from Asa Kashir, a close adviser to the late prime minister Yitzhak Rabin. "Our society is so quick to judge and so wicked, and very close to being a lynching society," he said.