Mass protests could force Olmert resignation

Allies and opponents today clamoured for Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s resignation after scathing criticism from an official commission of his performance during last year’s Lebanon war.

Allies and opponents today clamoured for Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s resignation after scathing criticism from an official commission of his performance during last year’s Lebanon war.

Olmert, though visibly drained by the ordeal, insisted he can ride out the storm.

Olmert might be able to hang on for now: his coalition partners are wary of any further upheaval that might loosen their grip on power.

However, the crisis could cripple policymaking, especially on peacemaking, and all of Olmert’s desperate efforts to survive could run aground if the public outcry swells.

“It’s a very big drama, and the seismograph is shaking,” said Avraham Diskin, a political science professor at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem. “But a real earthquake may not come, or might be delayed.”

Olmert took the blow of his long political life yesterday when a government war probe tarred him as acting rashly in the initial stage of Israel’s war against Hezbollah guerrillas, who seized two Israeli soldiers and bombarded northern Israeli communities with rockets. Despite the unprecedented criticism, Olmert immediately vowed to stay on.

Olmert tried to project a business-as-usual image today, attending a swearing-in ceremony for Israel’s new police commissioner and instructing Defence Minister Amir Peretz to draw up a plan for dismantling unauthorised West Bank settlement outposts.

But the prime minister – who stayed up all night reading the 263-page report, aides said – looked haggard, and he struggled to stay awake at the police ceremony. TV cameras caught his eyes closing several times, and local stations ran the scene again and again. Confidants spoke of a gloomy atmosphere in his office.

“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,” spokeswoman Miri Eisin said.

“He thinks that through his actions, (public) support will come.”

Newspapers demanded that Olmert step down, saying he had lost the confidence of the Israeli people.

Seven out of 10 Israelis polled for Israel Radio shortly after the war probe was released said he should quit.

Olmert’s public support, high in the early days of the war, nose-dived after the fighting ended without Israel’s having achieved its two aims, crippling Hezbollah and recovering the captured soldiers. Snowballing corruption allegations have further withered his standing.

Polls show Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni of Olmert’s Kadima Party to be more popular than her boss, but former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of the hawkish Likud Party would win the premiership if elections were held now.

Ahead of release of the inquiry report, Olmert worked hard to shore up support within his government.

In a first crack in that backing, a Cabinet minister from the Labour Party, Olmert’s senior coalition partner, resigned today and called on the prime minister to follow.

Hours later, a Kadima lawmaker demanded that Olmert step down – the first member of his party to publicly break with him.

The crucial question of whether these were isolated incidents or the first in a wave of defections could not be immediately answered.

Inside Kadima, members were mulling whether Olmert is the person they want to lead them into the next election – or whether Livni might be a better alternative.

Labour primaries scheduled for late May could be a turning point. If Peretz, the incumbent chairman, is defeated as expected, his replacement might bolt the coalition, and that could force Olmert to step down and call an election.

But “if there is no immediate split in Kadima or defection of major components ... we are going to have a stabilised situation in a few days,” Diskin predicted.

In the end, self-preservation might carry the day.

“Nobody has an interest at the moment in going to elections, as I can see, and in the absence of this, you go with what you have,” said Stuart Cohen, a political science professor at Bar-Ilan University outside Tel Aviv.

Opinion polls indicate large-scale public dissatisfaction with Olmert. “There is a deep sense of mistrust, of ’Damn all the politicians,”’ said Asher Arian, a political science professor at Haifa University.

Olmert confidants have said mass protests – like one scheduled for Tel Aviv on Thursday – could force him out. Another benchmark is publication of the commission’s final report, set for the summer.

In the meantime, Olmert’s struggle to weather the current crisis has put any thought of peacemaking on hold.

Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of the Islamic militant Hamas said he expected Israel to strike harder against the Palestinians to deflect attention from the war report.

“We ask the international community to halt any Israeli intentions of aggression against the Palestinian people,” Haniyeh said.

Hezbollah, meanwhile, continued to gloat over Olmert’s troubles.

Just across Israel’s northern border, Hezbollah put up billboards of the Israeli leader with a grimace on his face, against a backdrop of photos of a ship, a blazing helicopter and a damaged tank.

“It’s really disgusting ...!” the billboard read.

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