JERUSALEM — Israel's first president used to complain to friends about the limitations of his largely ceremonial post, joking that the only place he was allowed to poke his nose was into his handkerchief.
Still, he and other Israeli presidents generally abided by the unwritten rules of the office: to serve as a national symbol and unifying force for the Israeli people and maintain a statesmanlike distance from the storms of Israeli politics.
Ezer Weizman, a colorful, tart-tongued former fighter pilot, is carving out an activist, wholly unorthodox role as Israel's seventh president. A political hawk turned committed dove, Weizman is changing his position into a platform from which he voices often blunt opinions about Israeli government failings, particularly on the peace process with the Palestinians.
Compared with previous Israeli presidents, "there's no doubt Weizman is overstepping his bounds," said Zeev Chafets, an Israeli author, columnist and former government spokesman. "But anyone who knew him knew exactly how it would end up."
Since Weizman took office in May 1993, his outspoken comments have earned him criticism and praise from across the political spectrum. Ever the maverick, the 73-year-old president often stuns politicians who expect him to follow a predictable course in his potentially influential position.
But many Israelis are applauding.
"People love him," said Shmuel Sandler, a political science professor at Tel Aviv's Bar-Ilan University. "He says what people are thinking but are afraid to say. And he can get away with it."
Weizman, who begins an official visit to Washington today, has acted at times as both a brake and a goad to Israeli governments.
Last fall, he all but pushed Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu into meeting for the first time with Yasser Arafat, announcing that he would meet the Palestinian Authority president himself if the prime minister continued to delay. Netanyahu met Arafat 10 days later.
Earlier, after a series of terrorist attacks during the Labor Party governments of Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres, Weizman read the shaken mood of the Israeli public and urged the government to slow the pace toward peace. Labor lost power last year to Netanyahu's Likud Party in an election viewed as a rejection of Labor's handling of the peace process.
Most recently, Weizman set off a furor by telling Secretary of State Madeleine Albright to be ready to pressure Netanyahu to make peace with the Palestinians. The president also suggested that Albright should "knock heads"--apparently those of Netanyahu and Arafat--to force a deal.
The comments, disclosed by a U.S. official, sparked furious accusations from Netanyahu's aides and others that the president was trying to usurp the decision-making role of Netanyahu and his government.
Several right-wing politicians called for Weizman's resignation, and a top Israeli official fumed privately that the president's behavior was "demagogic," according to an account in the Maariv daily.
The president's aides said his remarks were taken out of context. But Weizman responded to the storm in typical fashion. He announced that he will seek a second term, reportedly dashing the hopes of those close to Netanyahu that the president might step down when his term expires in May.
Elected president by the Israeli parliament, Weizman promised at the outset to do his best not to, "heaven forbid, step on government toes."
But in early 1995, he began speaking out, shrugging off concerns that he was damaging the presidency by abandoning its tradition of political neutrality and ignoring calls from one party, then the other, that he show restraint.
Previous presidents had commented occasionally on affairs of state but never so consistently or frequently as Weizman, analysts said.
In 1982, then-President Yitzhak Navon went on national television to call for a commission of inquiry into Israel's role in the massacres of Palestinian civilians at two refugee camps in Lebanon.
"It was so dramatic precisely because he was a very reserved president and it was an exception to his normal behavior," said Joseph Alpher, a veteran observer of Israeli politics as the Israel and Middle East representative of the American Jewish Committee in Jerusalem. "But Weizman's personality is such that no one expected that he could play the role of reserved figurehead."
Known for his loose tongue, Weizman has angered political allies and opponents over the years, as well as constituent groups such as women and homosexuals, with his sharp, occasionally crude language.
A scion of an influential Zionist family--he is a nephew of Chaim Weizmann, Israel's first president--Weizman was trained as a fighter pilot by the British during World War II.
After Israel's independence was declared in 1948, he helped build and then commanded the Israeli air force.