Under-fire Olmert defiant despite mass rally

Battered Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert remained defiant on Friday after a mass rally called on him to quit over his failure in the Lebanon war, with the next few weeks seen as key to whether the master politician can cling to power.

“The prime minister does not intend to resign,” Olmert spokesperson Miri Eisin said. “The prime minister listens attentively to everything that happens and is trying to react in the best interests of the State of Israel.”

Late on Thursday, between 150 000 and 200 000 people, according to estimates by police and organisers, gathered in Tel Aviv calling on Olmert to resign in the wake of a government inquiry that roasted his leadership last summer’s war.

The rally — the first mass protest since an interim report was published on Monday — drew activists from both left and right and upped the enormous pressure on Olmert to resign.

Olmert has admitted to errors in handling the war, but has said stepping down would be irresponsible and vowed to correct the mistakes uncovered by the inquiry.

“I am personally not in the most comfortable position,” he told lawmakers from his Kadima party this week. “But I am past the age of 60 and I’ve seen a lot of things in my life and I’ve learned not to run away from responsibility.”

Already weakened by a string of scandals and with two-thirds of Israelis wanting him to go, the man often called Israel’s best politician has so far managed to bridle several challenges to his leadership since Monday’s report.

He doused a mutiny within the centrist Kadima, despite a call for him to resign by a senior aide and former close ally, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, and has kept intact his 78-member coalition in the 120-seat Knesset.

“Contrary to expectations and assessments, Olmert is ending this week on his feet — wounded, bleeding, battered and bruised, but breathing. For now,” wrote the tabloid, Maariv.

But observers warn that the next few weeks will be crucial as to whether he will be able to cling on to the post he officially assumed less than a year ago after leading Kadima to a narrow victory in its first parliamentary poll.

“Make no mistake: Olmert’s chances of surviving in the medium or long range are weak to zero,” Maariv wrote.

Olmert still faces trouble on several fronts — his party, his coalition, the numerous corruption investigations against him and the final report by the Winograd Commission on the Lebanon war due out in less than three months.

Although he quashed a Kadima rebellion this week, he still faces a possible revolt as lawmakers worry that his unpopularity will sink a party that is already down in the polls.

Kadima cannot oust Olmert, as the charter of the party set up by former premier Ariel Sharon has no such provision. But Olmert would have no choice but to quit if a majority of its 29 lawmakers abandon him.

Meanwhile Labour, Kadima’s main partner, is considering abandoning the coalition. That would leave Olmert without the required majority in Parliament and pave the way for opposition Likud chief Benjamin Netanyahu to try to form one, observers say.

Labour’s central committee is due to discuss the matter at a meeting on May 13. “Olmert and Kadima leaders fear the public outcry over the Winograd report could force Labour to quit the government,” Haaretz wrote.

A new wave of criticism is likely to be unleashed against Olmert when parts of his testimony before the Winograd Commission are made public in less than two weeks.

The full Winograd report is due out by August, with members hinting that it could contain “personal recommendations”.

Olmert has said that if it explicitly calls for him to resign, he will comply. — AFP

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