Israelis march for resignation

Tens of thousands have marched in Tel Aviv, demanding that Prime Minister Ehud Olmert resign following criticism of his handling of last summer's war in Lebanon.



Mr Olmert remains defiant, hoping to beat back a rising wave of calls for him to step down.

A day after his popular foreign minister, Tzipi Livni, joined the chorus, Mr Olmert's aides felt she had not dealt him a mortal political blow. But they admitted that a large-scale public protest campaign could bring him down.

Thursday's turnout appeared to top 100,000, though police refused to estimate the crowd's size.

It was made up of a cross-section of Israelis – moderates and hard-liners, secular and religious, young and old, a rare mix symbolising the widespread dissatisfaction with Mr Olmert.

Organisers claimed success, though it remained to be seen whether the outpouring of anger would be enough to oust the prime minister.

"Failures, Go Home!" read the banner behind the podium. Organisers decided not to allow politicians to address the crowd, to give the gathering a grass-roots nature. Uzi Dayan, a retired general and a main speaker said "There are no politicians here, but this is a political event."

The protesters came from all over Israel, including 35 who walked about 70km to Tel Aviv from the southern town of Sderot, a frequent target of rockets from Palestinian militants in Gaza.

Some political demonstrations in the past have attracted hundreds of thousands of protesters, and the size of this one was seen as a critical sign of the extent of public anger.

Israel went to war against Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon on July 12 after guerrillas crossed into Israel, killed three soldiers and captured two others.

For many Israelis, the 34-day war was a failure because it didn't achieve the two main goals Mr Olmert set – returning the soldiers and crushing Hezbollah, which fired nearly 4,000 rockets at northern Israel.

The conflict killed 158 Israelis and more than 1,000 Lebanese.

Damning report

The Olmert-appointed commission to investigate the war turned on its creator, blasting Mr Olmert for "hasty" decision-making, failure to consult others and neglecting to assess the chances that his goals could actually be accomplished.

The report covered only the first six days of the war and the six years that led up to it. A full report is expected in the summer – another benchmark in Mr Olmert's political survival campaign.

Insiders in Mr Olmert's Kadima Party said he has overcome the first onslaught. Kadima leaders rallied around their beleaguered chief today, clearly mindful that a mutiny could lead to new elections that would hand power to hawkish former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is leading in the polls.

Israel's parliament interrupted its spring recess today to hold a special session on the war report, where Netanyahu appealed for new elections.

"We must redress the primary flaw the report identifies – the lack of a seasoned leadership, the lack of responsibility, the inability to make tough decisions and carry them out," he told a sparsely attended session.

Mr Olmert was present in the chamber, but did not speak.

Even if Mr Olmert weathers the current crisis, two upcoming events are expected to pose even greater challenges to his rule: a party primary and a final report on the Lebanon war.

Mr Olmert's main coalition partner, Labour, is scheduled to hold a May 28 primary election that is expected to oust Defence Minister Amir Peretz, a lesser target of the inquiry report. A new Labour leader may well decide to bolt the coalition, which almost certainly would deal a fatal blow to Olmert's government.

Even optimists doubt Olmert would be able to stay in power if the final Lebanon report is as harsh as the first one.

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