Olmert won't resign over report on Hezbollah war

Posted in Israel / Palestine | 02-May-07 | Author: Steven Erlanger and Isabel Ker| Source: International Herald Tribune

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert speaks at a special meeting of the cabinet at his office in Jerusalem, Tuesday, May 2, 2007.

JERUSALEM: Opposition politicians fulminated and a young cabinet minister resigned, but Prime Minister Ehud Olmert of Israel pressed ahead Tuesday with what aides called "a normal working schedule" following a damning report about his performance in the war last summer against Hezbollah.

Olmert, the former mayor of Jerusalem and a longtime member of Israeli cabinets, was criticized in the Winograd report for acting hastily in going to war. But in politics, Olmert has always understood the importance of patience. For the moment, at least, said his aides, his Kadima party and coalition are holding together and there was no unanimity on a rival or successor.

Nevertheless, by Tuesday evening, it appeared that a possible mutiny was brewing within Kadima, led by the party chairman, Avigdor Itzhaki. His aide, Uri Maimon, confirmed by telephone that Itzhaki planned to call on Olmert to resign at a meeting scheduled for Thursday. Itzhaki called several Kadima lawmakers Tuesday to ask for their support.

Instant polls showed a majority favoring the immediate resignation of Olmert and Defense Minister Amir Peretz.

"They have to go. They have blood on their hands and must take responsibility," said Ronen Hershkowitz, 34, a Tel Aviv actor speaking on his cellphone from the Negev desert, where he was on reserve duty with his army unit. "People are angry," added Hershkowitz, who fought in the summer war and lost a close friend just hours after crossing into Lebanon. "They just don't trust the government."

But eight months after the end of a war that most Israelis immediately viewed as a failure, there is little visible anger to be seen on the streets. That may yet come, with a demonstration scheduled for Thursday evening in Tel Aviv, but it was scheduled before the Winograd commission released its report.

Small demonstrations in front of Olmert's house have not yet spread, and there is a general sense that Olmert, already deeply unpopular, is simply marking time for a few months - that his fate is sealed and his resignation or ousting inevitable, if not now then by the end of the summer, after the second part of the commission's report dealing with the rest of the war.

Ben Caspit wrote in Maariv: "Ehud Olmert's people know the truth. It is bitter. The prime minister cannot remain in his position after such a report. The prime minister must go home."

And Nahum Barnea, the country's leading columnist, wrote in Yediot Aharonot of living on borrowed time. "The bottom line is that Ehud Olmert needs to go," he said. "Not because of the failings of the war, but because if after a report like that, from a committee like that, a committee whose members he chose and whose letter of appointment he wrote, Olmert continues to serve as prime minister, there will probably never be any personal accountability here."

Even so, Barnea wrote with some sadness: "He can still survive politically. Not because the war was a success but because the alternatives, even by the committee's standards, aren't any better." He then listed some of those alternatives: two former prime ministers, Benjamin Netanyahu and Ehud Barak, and Olmert's foreign minister, Tzipi Livni.

The man now ahead in the polls, Netanyahu of Likud, is keeping his silence, his aides said. Known for his own impulsiveness, Netanyahu clearly thinks it is more statesmanlike to let his allies call for Olmert's removal.

Netanyahu's former aide, Uzi Arad, for instance, said that Olmert will find it "exceedingly difficult" to stay on, since the commission made it clear that its conclusions about the rest of the war and its end will probably be even harsher, since they were "even worse-managed than the beginning."

Since the war, Arad said, "Olmert had lost his popular support and ratings. Now he has been deprived by the commission of all functional legitimacy."

Olmert's primary rival within his Kadima party, Livni, has also kept silent. At a party meeting Monday night, she said the report was too important to be turned into personal politics. "In the last few days, people have tried to drag me into a personal political fight, but I don't intend to play that game," she said, according to someone who was there. "There is nothing personal between me and the prime minister."

Few analysts really believed that, but now was not the time for major figures to strike. Peretz is expected to lose the Labor Party leadership later this month and has said he will not stay on as defense minister in any case. His likely successor is either Barak or Ami Ayalon, a former head of the Shin Bet security service.

Ayalon on Tuesday urged Olmert to resign, but said he did not favor the Labor Party leaving the government. The only Labor minister who did was Eitan Cabel, a junior minister, who quit to protest the failures of the war, which included, he said, the cabinet's own failures. "Ehud Olmert must resign," Cabel said. "I can no longer sit in a government led by Ehud Olmert."

But his resignation did not prompt others to go along, although one Kadima member, Marina Solodkin, openly urged Olmert to resign, and another, Tzachi Hanegbi, who leads Parliament's foreign and defense committee, suggested that he "must ask himself, in the light of the circumstances, if he has the authority and ability to lead the government now."

Olmert said he has asked himself just that, and has decided that he does. In part he depends on those like Ronit Cohen, 39, who works in the Education Ministry. "I'm not crazy about Olmert, but I'm not sure he has to resign," she said. "It wasn't only him. There were a lot of factors."Aviva Yisrael, 70, is the eighth generation of her family in what is now Israel. "The country is very important to us, and I fear for it," she said, near the wool and yarn store she runs. "It begins with corruption and ends with other things. If people gave of themselves to the country, rather than taking from it, we would be better off."Israel is a good example of the country's simultaneous unhappiness and malaise. "I won't talk politics because it disgusts me," she said, then proceeded to do so. "I don't see any leader now who can lead us. I don't trust any of them, I'm sorry to say. Every 18 months they have elections, and then it's no good again."About the war, she was despairing. "Soldiers die and their parents are proud of the sons they sacrificed, then there's such corruption - it's hard to grasp. I've been feeling this way," she said, "for a long time." The New York Times