Israel’s Olmert dismisses calls to resign

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert brushed aside calls to resign from his foreign minister and other leading figures on Wednesday, acknowledging he was in a difficult position but vowing to fix all mistakes.

Two days after an official inquiry blamed Olmert for serious failures in handling last year’s Lebanon war, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, Olmert’s deputy, said the centrist Kadima party needed new leadership to restore the nation’s confidence.

”I am in a personally uncomfortable position, but I will not shirk my responsibility and will fix all the mistakes,” a senior Israeli official quoted Olmert as telling Kadima legislators at a closed-door meeting. The official declined to be named.

Livni, a former intelligence agent, said she would seek to take over as party leader.

”I told the prime minister that I thought to resign was the right thing to do,” Livni said after meeting Olmert. ”Now is the time to restore the public’s trust in the government.”

Adding to the pressure, Kadima’s parliamentary leader, Avigdor Yitzhaki, called on Olmert to ”act responsibly and resign”. He resigned his own post in protest during a meeting of the parliamentary bloc with Olmert.

Under Kadima’s rules, Olmert cannot be ousted. The only course of action is to persuade him to resign, officials say. Parliament could force Olmert out through a no-confidence vote but there does not yet appear to be a majority to do so.

Since the Winograd Commission’s scathing interim report, Olmert has resisted calls to quit and Israeli media quoted aides as saying he may dismiss Livni and fight to stay on, despite opinion polls showing two-thirds of Israelis think he should go.

An Olmert loyalist was named to replace Yitzhaki.

‘Serious failure’

The government-appointed commission said Olmert had ”made up his mind hastily” to launch the campaign against Hezbollah guerrillas last July and accused him of ”a serious failure in exercising judgement, responsibility and prudence”.

His declared aims in going to war, to free two soldiers seized by Hezbollah and crush the militant group, were ”overly ambitious and impossible to achieve”, the commission said in its report on the 34-day conflict.

At an emergency Cabinet meeting earlier on Wednesday, Olmert acknowledged personal failings.

But he said: ”I suggest that all those who are in a hurry to take advantage of this report and make political gain — slow down.”

Cabinet minister Meir Sheetrit sought to bolster Olmert, saying: ”I am against calling for the prime minister to resign.”

The Cabinet formed a committee to oversee the implementation of the changes recommended by the commission.

Former army chief Dan Halutz stepped down earlier this year, and aides to Defence Minister Amir Peretz told Israel Radio and Army Radio he was considering stepping down.

Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said he hoped political developments in Israel would be resolved quickly and not set back efforts to restart peace talks.

Opinion polls in three major Israeli newspapers showed 65% to 73 % of the public wanted Olmert to quit.

The two frontrunners to replace Olmert are Livni (48) and Deputy Prime Minister Shimon Peres (83), a veteran statesman who has been prime minister on two previous occasions.

Former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of the rightist Likud party, a favourite in opinion polls, could also pose a challenge if Olmert’s government is toppled.

Despite growing dissent within Kadima, Olmert’s main coalition partners, notably the Labour group, have so far stuck by him, apparently keen to avoid an early election that could end up reducing their parliamentary power. — Reuters

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