Olmert Defies Growing Clamor for Resignation

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Tens of thousands of people poured into the streets of the Israeli capital, demanding Prime Minister Ehud Olmert step down following a scathing government report that criticized his leadership during last summer's war in Lebanon.

The rally, which packed Tel Aviv's Rabin Square, was organized mainly by reserve soldiers and families who lost loved ones in the war against Hezbollah. It comes ahead of a no confidence vote against Olmert scheduled Monday in Israel's parliament.

"Prime Minister Olmert, you said you work for us," author Meir Shalev told the crowd at Thursday night. "Well, you're fired!"

Shalev's remarks drew loud applause. But, for now, it seems unlikely the prime minister's resignation is imminent.

Olmert has doggedly resisted calls to leave and the 120-member Knesset has backed him in previous no-confidence votes.

This week he successfully beat back a rebellion within his own centrist Kadima party that included calls for his resignation from his own foreign minister.

It appears, however, most members of Olmert's coalition, which controls 78 seats in parliament, will stick with him largely out of fear that new elections will bring about a return to power of the right-wing Likud party.

Polls have shown that two-thirds of Israelis want Olmert to resign, largely over his handling of the 34-day Lebanon war, which killed 158 Israelis and more than 1,000 Lebanese.

Protests are routine in Israel. But last night's brought out not just activists from the right and left, but many ordinary people who do not usually take to the streets.

Cedric Cohen-Scali, 35, said it was his first protest in years. He brought his wife and one-year-old child to the rally. Cohen-Scali said Olmert should be held accountable for wartime failings that resulted in Hezbollah rockets hammering northern Israel for a full month.

Cohen-Scali said he and others were largely left to fend for themselves. He also said he has had enough of the seemingly unending steam of corruption allegations against Olmert and members of his administration.

"We are fed up with this government, with the corruption and with this terrible war we had … and we want new leadership," he said.

Scores of Israeli soldiers who slogged it out on the ground against Hezbollah in last August also came out to vent their anger at what many see as profound leadership failings by the prime minister, Defense Minister Amir Peretz and top military commanders.

Sgt. Yossi Avigor, 30, an Israeli reservist infantryman, fought in southwestern Lebanon. He accused the government of rushing to an all-out war without proper preparation, a coherent war plan, realistic goals or an exit strategy.

"We are afraid that … we will have to confront Hezbollah or Syria, and maybe someone else, and we want to be prepared and have the right person to lead us," Avigor said.

During the demonstration, politicians were kept off the stage in an effort to send a bipartisan message, but lawmakers from the right and left were in attendance in force.

Danny Yatom is the former head of the Mossad, Israel's intelligence service, and is now a senior lawmaker in the Labor Party, part of the governing coalition.

"The government no longer enjoys the support of the public and they should resign," Yatom said. "I think new elections are a bad option, but the worse one is that this government will continue to govern."

Nearby in the crowd, Effie Etam a member of parliament with the right wing National Religious Party, also called for new elections, saying Olmert's administration is untenable.

Hebrew University political analyst Ruben Hahzan said, in the short term, last night's rally may not change the political dynamic as Olmert clings to power. But the large turnout, Hahzan says, sent a strong message.

"Parties like Labor will now realize that they are going to be hemorrhaging in the polls if they stay with Olmert," Hahzan said. "And a party like Kadima will realize that as long as they have this albatross on their neck called 'Olmert,' they're hemorrhaging in the polls."

Rally organizers vowed to continue to press Olmert to leave with a series of public demonstrations.

The government report that sparked the current crisis is only an interim document dealing with the first week of the war. In August, the full report will be released.

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