TEL AVIV, Israel - Tens of thousands of Israelis rallied in a Tel Aviv square after sundown yesterday, demanding that Prime Minister Ehud Olmert resign because of a government inquiry's scathing criticism of his handling of last summer's inconclusive war with Hezbollah in Lebanon.
Olmert remained defiant, hoping to beat back a wave of calls for him to step down. A day after his popular foreign minister joined the chorus, Olmert's aides argued that it had not been a mortal political blow but conceded that a large-scale public protest campaign could bring him down.
Turnout on the square in front of Tel Aviv's City Hall appeared to top 100,000, but police would not estimate the crowd's size.
The rally drew a cross-section of Israelis - moderates and hard-liners, secular and religious, young and old, a rare mix symbolizing the widespread dissatisfaction with Olmert.
The crowd was well-behaved, and hundreds of police on hand had nothing to do. Demonstrators carried signs reading "Elections now" and "Olmert, go home." A small group held aloft a mock black coffin labeled, "Government, RIP."
"Failures, Go Home!" read a banner erected behind the podium, referring to Olmert and Defense Minister Amir Peretz, a lesser target of the war inquiry's criticism.
Moshe Muskal, 50, whose son Rafnael was killed in the conflict with Hezbollah, was among parents who addressed the gathering. "I am glad that the public is not passive or despairing," he said afterward. He said the soldiers "fulfilled their mission fully. Our mission is to make our country a little bit better."
The protesters came from all over Israel, including 35 who walked 45 miles from the southern town of Sderot, a frequent target of rockets fired by Palestinians in Gaza.
Edan Mehallel, 16, of the port city of Haifa, said he lived through the Hezbollah rocket attacks during the war and came to make a difference. "The more people there are, the more influence the demonstration will have," he said.
Some previous political demonstrations in Israel have attracted hundreds of thousands of protesters, and this one's size was seen as a critical sign of the extent of public anger.
A demonstration in the Tel Aviv square after Israel's hard-fought 1973 war to turn back invasions by Egypt and Syria led to the resignations of Prime Minister Golda Meir and Defense Minister Moshe Dayan.
Israel went to war against Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon on July 12 after guerrillas crossed into Israel, killing three soldiers and capturing two.
For many Israelis, the 34-day war was a failure because it didn't achieve Olmert's two main goals: 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.
A commission appointed by Olmert to investigate the war accused him of "hasty" decision-making, failing to consult others, and neglecting to assess the chances that his goals could be accomplished.
Leaders of the ruling Kadima Party rallied around Olmert yesterday, mindful that a mutiny could lead to elections that polls indicate would be won by hawkish former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud Party.
Kadima could switch its leader without losing power. The prime minister is not directly elected and usually comes from parliament's largest bloc.