JERUSALEM - Israel's popular foreign minister yesterday called on Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to resign - positioning herself to replace him and dealing the toughest blow yet to his efforts to stay in power.

Olmert said he did not plan to resign, despite the growing number of allies deserting him after a scathing report on his performance in last summer's war in Lebanon.

Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni became the highest-ranking official to call for Olmert's ouster, telling him in a meeting that he had lost the public's support and setting herself up to become Israel's second female prime minister, after the legendary Golda Meir.

"I told him that resignation would be the right thing for him to do," Livni said. She had been conspicuously silent since the report came out Monday.

A relative political newcomer and a former officer in the Mossad spy agency, Livni, 48, appears to be the Kadima Party's best hope of retaining power.

This week's report capped a six-month investigation into a war that the Israeli public widely perceived as a failure. The five-member panel, named by Olmert, used exceptionally harsh language, saying the prime minister bore overall responsibility and suffered from poor judgment, hasty decision-making, and shortsightedness.

The report has prompted widespread calls for Olmert's resignation, both from political rivals and in the media.

An opinion poll published yesterday in the Maariv daily showed that 73 percent of Israelis surveyed thought Olmert should resign, while 17 percent said he should remain in office. The poll questioned 501 Israeli adults and had a margin of error of 4.6 percentage points.

Livni, at her news conference, said she would remain in the government and not actively work to oust Olmert. But she said that he should voluntarily leave office, and that she considered herself the rightful successor to lead Kadima. Livni also said she did not want to see the government dissolved and opposed early elections.

"I haven't worked and am not working to topple the prime minister. That's a decision he'll have to make," she said. "It's not a personal matter between me and the prime minister - this issue is more important than both of us."

Under Israel's parliamentary system, Kadima could change leaders without losing power. The prime minister is not directly elected and usually comes from parliament's largest bloc.

Polls have shown that the hard-line former prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu of the opposition Likud Party, would win if elections were held. Netanyahu was Israel's leader from 1996 to 1999, rebuffing pressure to make concessions to the Palestinians and employing especially harsh rhetoric about dangers facing Israel from Palestinian and other Arab extremists.

The U.S.-educated Netanyahu is poised to make a comeback at the head of a coalition of hawkish parties, taking advantage of the expected crash of the centrist Kadima and the failure of the dovish Labor to inspire support.

Last year's war erupted July 12 when Hezbollah guerrillas crossed into Israel, killing three soldiers and capturing two. In 34 days of fighting, Israel failed to achieve the two main goals Olmert set: to return the soldiers and crush Hezbollah. Instead, Hezbollah fired nearly 4,000 rockets into Israel.

Nearly 160 Israelis and more than 1,000 Lebanese died in the fighting, and Israeli soldiers returned from battle complaining of conflicting orders and shortages of food and ammunition.

Katsav Fights Rape Charges

Israeli President Moshe Katsav's lawyers made a last-ditch effort yesterday to stave off an indictment on rape and other sexual-

assault charges at a hearing before Israel's

top prosecutor.

Attorney General Meni Mazuz notified Katsav in January that he intended to press charges of rape, sexual assault and fraud based on allegations by four women who used to work for Katsav.

Following standard practice in charges involving

senior officials, Katsav

was entitled to a hearing before an indictment is filed. Conviction on the various charges could bring penalties totaling

46 years in prison.

Katsav, 61, has denied all wrongdoing and says his accusers are seeking revenge because he fired them. He has taken a leave of absence from the ceremonial presidency but has refused to resign. He did not attend the hearing.

- Associated Press

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