With characteristic gusto, Israeli President Ezer Weizman leaped into the center of political controversy Friday, refusing to honor the government's commitment, made in its recently signed accord with the PLO, to immediately free all Palestinian women prisoners.
Weizman refused to grant pardons to two women from East Jerusalem who he said had "blood on their hands."
Later Friday, two more female inmates convicted of murdering Jews were refused pardons by a committee with jurisdiction over West Bank inmates.
Weizman served notice to the government at the beginning of the week that he would not pardon prisoners convicted of murder.
Ministers fumed publicly and privately, and Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin unsuccessfully appealed to the mercurial president to change his mind.
But in a sudden about-face, Rabin decided to reinforce Weizman's gesture after the president made his decision public Friday.
Rabin heads the committee that decided that the two West Bank women would not be among those freed beginning Sunday.
Speaking to Israeli television, Rabin said the decision should cause no crisis. But Palestinian officials denounced the decision.
"This is the first violation of the agreement we signed in Washington," said Nabil abu Rudaineh, an adviser to Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat. "It clearly states that all women prisoners would be released, and we signed it before the whole world. What will the Israelis say now to the Americans, the Russians, the Europeans, the Japanese who were there?"
Arafat was expected to raise the issue in a meeting scheduled for tonight with Foreign Minister Shimon Peres.
The government's decision is likely to be hugely popular with Israelis.
Shumer said Weizman's office was deluged all week with letters, telegrams and phone calls urging him not to free those convicted of murder.
Israel holds about 5,200 Palestinians in its jails at the moment and, in the latest accord with the PLO, promised to free about 2,300 of them in three stages. Twenty-eight female prisoners were supposed to have been among the first released.
The Palestinians regard the release as an important gesture of reconciliation.
But most Israelis see it as freeing thousands of unrepentant terrorists, even though prisoners are required to sign a letter forswearing violence.
Weizman's decision earned him praise from right-wing politicians, who for years have scorned him as a dove willing to pay any price for peace with Arabs. It also earned him bitter criticism from the Labor Party and its left-wing coalition partner, Meretz, the engineers of his election by Parliament to the presidency.
Weizman, 71, a former fighter pilot, seemed to revel in the ruckus.
Longtime observers say he relished the chance to give the presidency more than symbolic meaning.
"Weizman is not a model, a national symbol like some think the president should be," said Avraham Diskin, a political science professor at Jerusalem's Hebrew University. "He has a long history of being a naughty boy."
Critics and supporters agreed that the president was providing more than just political theater.
He was giving voice to the deep split in Israeli society about this latest phase of Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking, in which the Israeli army will pull out of West Bank cities and towns and thousands of Palestinian police will be deployed in their stead.
"At this time, he is the most popular president in the history of the state," said Zeev Bielsky, mayor of the coastal plain town of Raananna and a member of the Likud Party that Weizman abandoned in 1980 over its reluctance to make peace with the Palestinians. "He doesn't sit in his home like a king in a tower. He is in the marketplace, in the towns, calling people who have lost loved ones in terrorist attacks on the telephone.
"He expresses what a lot of people feel," Bielsky said. "The man interprets his job to be that of bringing what the people think to the attention of the government."
Weizman's pardon is required for the early release of any prisoner convicted in Israeli courts.
Most Palestinian prisoners are residents of the occupied territories, and are tried and convicted in Israeli military courts. They can be released early on the order of the military commander of the region where they were tried.
But 14 of the female prisoners were residents of East Jerusalem, or committed their crimes inside Israel, and so were tried in Israeli courts.
Among them are the two women Weizman refused to pardon.
Imaam Jaabari was jailed for stabbing to death a Jewish seminary student as he walked through a Jerusalem park. Mai Ghousain was convicted of stabbing and wounding an Israeli, and of later stabbing to death a female inmate whom she suspected of collaborating with the Israelis.
One of the two women refused pardons by Rabin's committee is Lamia Maarouf, a West Bank resident who holds a Brazilian passport, reports said. The other woman's identity was not disclosed.
For months, Weizman has ignored the promise he made upon his election as president not to, "heaven forbid, step on government toes," and he has repeatedly publicly criticized the government's haste in the peace process.
The apparent turnaround began in January, when he told a television interviewer that the time had come to suspend negotiations with the Palestinians.
He spoke after one of a series of bus bombings against Israelis by Islamic militants.
"Israel is conducting negotiations with Arafat on the assumption that he is the leader of the Palestinian side," Weizman said. "The government ought now to suspend these talks and tell Arafat to make a greater effort to put an end to this slaughter."
Since then, he has made a point of visiting the wounded from each bombing attack. Each time, he has called publicly for a rethinking of the government strategy.
Weizman has shrugged off appeals from government ministers for him to show restraint, and he ignored their accusations that he is damaging the presidency by abandoning its tradition of aloofness from political matters.
"I've been telling people for months that he could do real damage," said Dedi Zucker, head of the Knesset law committee and a leader of the Meretz Party. "The depth of politicization he brings to an institution, which was never meant to be politicized, destroys it for many, many years."
Labor Party officials this week accused Weizman of undermining the government and the presidency.
"The president's statements and his actions are inappropriate," Labor Party General Secretary Nissim Zvilli said. "Some of our president's statements are damaging the government's ability to function. I don't understand what is happening to our president."
For more than 50 years, Weizman has made waves, first as a military officer with a reputation for derring-do, then as a mercurial political figure.
Born into the Zionist aristocracy in 1924, Weizman is a nephew of Chaim Weizmann, Israel's first president. As a teen-ager, he fought with the right-wing Jewish underground, led by Menachem Begin, in pre-state days. He helped found Israel's air force after independence was declared in 1948.
Considered one of the military's most hawkish officers, Weizman devised the air force's devastating raids on the Arab air forces on the first day of the 1967 war that destroyed most of Egypt's warplanes on the ground.
His views began to change, though, when his only son, Shaul, was seriously wounded by a sniper on the Suez Canal in 1970.
But in 1977, he ran Likud's political campaign and was rewarded by being made defense minister in Begin's right-wing government.
He enthusiastically supported Begin's peacemaking with Egypt and became a close friend of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat.
Fluent in Arabic, Weizman was the first Israeli official to develop a positive image in the Arab world.
In 1980, Weizman quit Begin's government, disillusioned with the slow pace of talks on granting autonomy to the Palestinians.
In 1984, he formed his own small, dovish political party and joined the Labor-led national unity government as science minister. He caused an uproar in 1989 when it was reported that he secretly met with PLO officials in Europe. Such contacts were then against the law.
Weizman resigned his Knesset seat in 1992 and announced that he was retiring from politics, partly because he believed Labor and Likud were incapable of making peace with the Palestinians.
He was lured back by Peres, who championed his election to a five-year term as president in 1993.
Times staff writer Marjorie Miller contributed to this report.