Israeli Leader Holds Off Opponents

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Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is fighting off opponents within his own party, but his hold on leadership faces further tests in coming days.


In Israel, the pressure is building on Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to resign. This is over his leadership during last year's 34-day campaign against Hezbollah guerillas in Lebanon. His critics say that a new critical report is reason enough to get rid of him. He survived an initial challenge within his party, the Kadima Party, but the drama is not over.

Thousands are demonstrating in Tel Aviv's Yitzhak Rabin Square. NPR's Eric Westervelt is there. Eric, what's it like now?

ERIC WESTERVELT: Well, Alex, the protest tonight is just getting started. People are still arriving. Organizers - it's organized by bereaved family members and by reserve soldiers and other members of the general public who are just outraged at Olmert's leadership failings during the second Lebanon war.

People are still arriving. They're expecting a big turnout and they're hoping to keep it apolitical to keep the politicians off the stage and really make the focus, Alex, on accountability, to say this report was hard-hitting, it said that Prime Minister Olmert failed as a leader that he should step down.

CHADWICK: So is he going to be able to survive this?

WESTERVELT: Well, it's interesting. Earlier in the week, many commentators and analysts were saying that they didn't think that politically he would survive the week, but he's proven once again, Alex, to be a pretty crafty political operative. And he's really - he seems to have toughed it out so far. Whether he can on a long term really remains to be seen.

The commentators were joking that he seems to be, you know, better at fighting people within his own centrist Kadima Party than he was at fighting Lebanese Hezbollah guerillas because he's really proven to be a master at sort of rallying the party behind him in trying to fend off challenges to his leadership.

It appears for now, anyway, that a challenge within Kadima has lost steam. But you know, will this rally tonight change things as a lot of people take to the streets and show that they're still angry? Nearly 70 percent of the Israeli public polled has showed that they want him to step down, and that's not likely to go away anytime soon.

CHADWICK: Seventy percent, that's a big political tide. So there's plenty of pressure outside the party as well.

WESTERVELT: His foreign minister, Tzipi Livni, yesterday called on him to resign but she said she herself was not stepping down. And there is plenty of political pressure outside of the political establishment, really from across the political spectrum, for him to step down. I mean the Knesset or parliament held a special session today to discuss the Winograd report and some opposition lawmakers again called on Olmert to resign. And it just remains to be seen if tonight's rally will sort of spark something larger, a sustained movement and effort, like there was after the 1973 Yom Kippur War to oust then Prime Minister Golda Meir.

CHADWICK: Well, you wonder how effective any political leader can be if the subject of popular debate within the country, in political debate, is how are we going to get rid of this guy. If that's all anybody's talking about, how can he lead?

WESTERVELT: Well, exactly. And when your foreign minister says I think you should step down, how could he have a positive working relationship with his foreign minister? So there's a lot of questions out there like that. How can he survive, and it's really now just a question of how long he'll hold on. Many believe the next big test could come at the end of this month, Alex, when the Labor Party, his main coalition partner, holds a leadership vote that could change the makeup of his coalition. Could mean a change of his defense minister. It could mean a fundamental change in the makeup of his coalition.

CHADWICK: NPR's Eric Westervelt reporting from Tel Aviv. Eric, thank you again.

WESTERVELT: You're welcome, Alex.

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