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Olmert rebuffs rising calls to resign

JERUSALEM - Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert resisted mounting calls for his resignation yesterday after a government-appointed panel concluded he was responsible for a "serious failure" of judgment that sent the army unprepared into last summer's inconclusive war in Lebanon.

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said he would not resign.
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said he would not resign.Read more

JERUSALEM - Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert resisted mounting calls for his resignation yesterday after a government-appointed panel concluded he was responsible for a "serious failure" of judgment that sent the army unprepared into last summer's inconclusive war in Lebanon.

A long-awaited interim report on the government's conduct of the war said Olmert had rushed into it "without a second thought," and with no detailed plan or realistic goals. It was equally scathing of Defense Minister Amir Peretz, saying his inexperience "impaired Israel's ability" in the conflict.

The unexpectedly harsh findings stopped short of calling for either man to step down. But they cast doubt on the longevity of their 13-month-old coalition government.

"It would not be correct to resign, and I have no intention of resigning," a weary-looking Olmert said later in a terse prerecorded statement televised nationwide. Olmert said he would "act to correct all that needs fixing, thoroughly and fast," and convene a special cabinet session tomorrow.

Olmert and Peretz have been deeply unpopular since the war, which Israelis perceive as a psychological defeat. It erupted July 12 after Hezbollah guerrillas killed eight Israeli soldiers and captured two in a border raid.

In 34 days of fighting, the army failed for the first time in its history to vanquish an Arab foe. It was unable to retrieve the captured soldiers, destroy Hezbollah, or prevent the group from firing thousands of rockets into Israel. Israel's bombardment of civilian targets in retaliation was strongly condemned internationally.

Olmert's government has clung to its majority in parliament since the war with a bunkerlike mentality. Members fear making any move that might precipitate calls from the parliament for new elections; polls say a vote now would be won by the conservative Likud Party.

Even so, calls for both men's resignation rose yesterday from inside the ruling alliance, echoing a public outcry.

A protest movement led by a former general, military reservists who fought in Lebanon, and parents of soldiers killed in the war is organizing a rally Thursday in Tel Aviv around the slogan "You have failed; go home."

A few dozen demonstrators gathered outside Olmert's residence in Jerusalem yesterday, urging him to step down. Among them was Motti Ashkenazi, whose solitary protest grew into the movement that brought down Golda Meir's government after the costly Israeli victory in the 1973 Arab-Israeli war. "What you see here is only the beginning," Ashkenazi said last night.

Ophir Pines-Paz, a member of parliament from Peretz's Labor Party, said the protest movement would grow if Olmert and Peretz cling to office.

Yuval Steinitz, a Likud lawmaker, predicted that the ruling coalition would break apart, leading to a parliamentary vote to oust the government.

The newspaper Haaretz quoted an unnamed official of the prime minister's Kadima Party as saying 15 of its 29 members of parliament favored ousting Olmert, but not before the committee delivers its full report on the war this summer.

Under that scenario, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni would be his most likely replacement from within the party.

The 171-page interim report capped a six-month inquiry into the government's decision to go to war. The five-member committee, appointed by Olmert and led by retired Judge Eliyahu Winograd, said Olmert was primarily responsible for the decision to go to war with Hezbollah. The report also singled out Peretz and the wartime chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Dan Halutz, who resigned in January.

Olmert's declared aims in going to war, to free the two soldiers and crush Hezbollah, were "overly ambitious and impossible to achieve," the judge said.

The conflict claimed the lives of 158 Israelis, including 39 civilians, according to Israeli officials. More than 1,000 Lebanese, mostly civilians, are believed to have died in the fighting before a U.N.-brokered cease-fire took hold.

'Serious Failure' in Judgment

Some of the Israeli government probe's key findings on officials' handling of the 2006 war

in Lebanon:

was submitted to him and without asking for one."

that the declared goals

were overambitious and

not feasible."

and prudence."

SOURCE: Associated Press


Official: New Demands Made for BBC Reporter

A senior Palestinian official said yesterday that a kidnapped British reporter was still alive and that the men holding him had made new demands but had been turned down.

Deputy Prime Minister Azzam al-Ahmed said the kidnappers confirmed that BBC correspondent Alan Johnston, 44, was in good health. Johnston was abducted near his Gaza City apartment March 12.

Ahmed would not say who

talked to the kidnappers or how it was known they had Johnston. In Gaza, it is widely believed that the identity of the kidnappers is known but that no move has been made against them in order not to endanger the journalist.

Last month, a previously unknown group claimed it had killed Johnston, but it never provided proof and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas insisted he had information the reporter was alive. Ahmed described the abductors as a criminal gang.

- Associated Press