Olmert Defies Calls To Resign After Harsh Criticism In Lebanon War

Tuesday, May 1st 2007, 7:26 am
By: News On 6

JERUSALEM (AP) _ Prime Minister Ehud Olmert faced an onslaught of calls for his resignation and the first cracks in his coalition Tuesday following a government probe's harsh criticism of his handling of last summer's Lebanon war.

Olmert defiantly declared that he would not quit after the panel's report was released Monday, despite the inquiry's conclusion that he showed flawed judgment in ordering and directing the conflict. His spokeswoman, Miri Eisin, said Tuesday he was confident he could recover his eroded authority.

But newspaper editorials and commentators demanded that he step down, saying he had lost the confidence of the Israeli people. The report ``contains not even one lenient word to which the prime minister could cling in order to prolong his term,'' the Haaretz newspaper said in an editorial.

Ahead of Monday's report, the embattled Israeli leader had been working hard in recent weeks to shore up support within his coalition government.

In a first crack in that backing, a junior minister from the Labor Party, Eitan Cabel, resigned from the Cabinet to protest the government's failures in the war and called on the prime minister to follow suit.

``Ehud Olmert must resign. He must bear responsibility,'' Cabel told a news conference. ``I can no longer sit in a government led by Ehud Olmert.''

It was not clear whether Cabel's resignation would trigger other defections. Olmert's Kadima Party and Labor are the coalition's two biggest factions.

At an official event on Tuesday, Olmert nodded off several times while waiting to address the audience. On the dais, though, he was jocular and composed, but pointedly made no reference to the war probe.

Olmert was only months on the job when the war broke out after Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon killed three soldiers and captured two others in a July 12 cross-border raid.

Israel set out to retrieve the soldiers and crush Hezbollah, which had built up an arsenal of thousands of rockets following Israel's withdrawal from southern Lebanon in May 2000, ending an 18-year occupation.

Neither objective was obtained during 34 days of fighting, and Israel was traumatized by nearly 4,000 rockets that bombarded northern communities.

Between 1,035 and 1,191 Lebanese civilians and combatants were killed in the fighting, as were 119 Israeli soldiers and 39 civilians, according to official figures from the two sides.

A U.N.-brokered cease-fire pushed Hezbollah away from Israel's border. But Israeli intelligence officials have warned the group is rearming with the help of its Iranian and Syrian backers.

The inconclusive outcome of the war cracked apart the solid support that Olmert enjoyed when Israel went into battle. The criticism was stoked by reports from returning troops of confused orders, and shortages in equipment as basic as water and bullets.

Olmert's support evaporated after the war, causing him to shelve an ambitious plan to pull out of much of the West Bank. But backed by a coalition with a solid majority in parliament, Olmert on Monday rebuffed new demands to step down.

``It would not be correct to resign, and I have no intention of resigning,'' he said in a brief televised statement from his office.

His spokeswoman said Tuesday that Olmert would study the findings over the next few days and build a program to remedy the problems it identified.

``He has complete awareness of the lack of public confidence, but he feels that rather than go into a period of turmoil, he must be the one to fix the problems,'' Eisin said. ``He thinks that through his actions, (public) support will come.''

There were no protests outside his office on Tuesday, but demonstrators from across the country were to begin walking on foot later in the day to Tel Aviv, where a mass rally by opponents is scheduled for Thursday.

``There's no question'' he must go, said Zeev Crombie, a 50-year-old resident of the northern city of Safed, which was hit by many Hezbollah rockets during the war. ``In the eyes of the Arabs, we were defeated. And that gives them a lot of courage to continue to try to wipe us out.''

The prime minister's best hope for remaining in office appeared to rest in his coalition partners' fear of new elections, which polls predict would bring opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu of the hawkish Likud Party to power.

Olmert confidants have said only mass protests could force him to quit. He also might face an uprising within Kadima that might force him out of office.

Should he resign, he could either dissolve parliament and call early elections, or keep parliament intact and let the president tap an alternative candidate, possibly from another party, to try to put together a new Cabinet.

``The only way to get Olmert out of office now is for his Kadima Party to show him the door or for the public to mount such public protests that Kadima will be forced to show him the door,'' said Reuven Hazan, a political science professor at The Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

Nearly nine months after the war ended, it's not clear how roiled the public will be by a report that restates widespread criticisms of the wartime leadership's performance without releasing any stunning findings. What did surprise was the harsh language.

``The prime minister made up his mind hastily, despite the fact that no detailed military plan was submitted to him and without asking for one,'' the commission found. ``All of these add up to a serious failure in exercising judgment, responsibility and prudence.''

The inquiry analyzed the first six days of the war, as well as the six years beginning with the 2000 pullout from Lebanon and Hezbollah's subsequent buildup along Israel's northern border. A full report on the entire war is scheduled for release this summer.

The report also criticized Defense Minister Amir Peretz, a former union chief, for his inexperience and said wartime military chief Lt. Gen. Dan Halutz ``acted impulsively,'' misrepresented the army's readiness and suppressed dissenting opinions.

``If any one of them had acted better ... the outcome of the campaign would have been different and better,'' said Eliyahu Winograd, the retired judge who led the investigation.