Israel’s Olmert toughs out calls to resign

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert fended off a public call to resign from his foreign minister by winning critical support from party loyalists on Wednesday amid a crisis over his handling of the Lebanon war.

”The parliamentary bloc stands behind the government and the prime minister,” lawmakers from Olmert’s Kadima party said in a statement issued after hours of intense debate, declaring him the victor in a showdown with Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni.

The crisis broke on Monday when an official inquiry savaged Olmert’s conduct of last year’s war with Hezbollah guerrillas.

Just before the lawmakers met, Livni had convened a news conference to reveal she had urged Olmert to quit and she wanted his job. ”I told the prime minister that I thought to resign was the right thing to do,” she told a riveted television audience.

But in the parliamentary meeting with members of his centrist party, Olmert, as quoted by a senior official, said: ”I am in a personally uncomfortable position, but I will not shirk my responsibility and will fix all the mistakes.”

The Kadima bloc’s parliamentary leader, Avigdor Yitzhaki, resigned during the meeting in protest when Olmert rejected his calls to step down. The fate of Livni, a 48-year-old rising star and deputy leader of Kadima, now hangs in the balance.

”The prime minister enjoyed unprecedented support here,” veteran Deputy Prime Minister Shimon Peres said after hours of argument among the 29-strong parliamentary caucus.

Under Kadima’s rules, Olmert cannot be ousted. The only course of action is to persuade him to resign or to hold a primary which would take time to organise.

Parliament could force Olmert out through a no-confidence vote but there does not yet appear to be a majority to do so. Olmert’s coalition with Labour and smaller parties controls about two thirds of the Knesset’s 120 seats.

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.

‘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”.

At an emergency Cabinet meeting earlier on Wednesday, where ministers voted to oversee implementation of changes recommended by the commission, 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.”

Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said he hoped the turmoil in Israel would not set back efforts to restart peace talks.

The two frontrunners to replace Olmert are Livni (48) and Peres (83) a veteran statesman and former prime minister.

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.

A protest planned for Thursday in Tel Aviv could again challenge Olmert’s rule if the turnout is high. Parliament will also hold a debate on Thursday on the commission’s findings.

Some in Kadima, and among key coalition partners, such as the Labour party, have suggested they were sticking by Olmert out of concern of losing significant parliamentary clout if a revolt against him were to bring an early national election.

Kadima was founded only in 2005 by Ariel Sharon who, as prime minister, broke from Likud over his decision to withdraw Israeli forces from Gaza. Olmert, also once in Likud, took over when Sharon was hit by a stroke in January last year. – Reuters

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