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Calls growing for Olmert's resignation

Telling his rivals to "slow down," Prime Minister Ehud Olmert called an emergency meeting of his Cabinet Wednesday in a feverish attempt to hold on to power following a scathing report on his handling of last year's war in Lebanon.

JERUSALEM - Telling his rivals to "slow down," Prime Minister Ehud Olmert called an emergency meeting of his Cabinet Wednesday in a feverish attempt to hold on to power following a scathing report on his handling of last year's war in Lebanon.

This week's report has set off a growing chorus of calls for Olmert's resignation, including from members of his coalition government. A top lawmaker in Olmert's Kadima Party became the highest-ranking official to urge Olmert to step down, and party officials said Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, a party heavyweight, would follow suit later in the day.

The 34-day war against the Islamic group Hezbollah has been widely perceived as a failure. Monday's report said Olmert bore ultimate responsibility, accusing him of poor judgment, hasty decision making and lack of vision.

A defiant Olmert opened the special Cabinet session by hinting that reports of his political demise were premature.

"To those who are eager to take advantage of this report to reap certain political advantages, I suggest 'slow down,'" he said in comments broadcast on Israeli media.

Two new polls published in Israeli newspapers Wednesday said some two-thirds of Israelis want Olmert to resign immediately. The surveys indicated that the hawkish former prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu of the opposition Likud Party, would likely win handily if new elections were held.

Since the report was issued, Olmert has been scrambling to hold his coalition together. One minister from the Labor Party, the junior coalition partner, already has quit, and there have been increasing signs of eroding support within Kadima.

In a new blow to Olmert, the chairman of Kadima's parliamentary faction, Avigdor Yitzhaki, called for the prime minister to step down.

"In order for Kadima to return to being a legitimate ruling party and for the sake of the prime minister and for the sake of the entire country, I think the prime minister has to resign," he told Israel Radio. "He has to take this responsibility and resign."

Yitzhaki said if Olmert failed to do so immediately he would resign his post as chairman of his coalition. On Tuesday, another Kadima lawmaker, Marina Solodkin, also urged Olmert to step down.

But Livni, the foreign minister, was emerging as the biggest threat to Olmert's survival. Livni, who has stayed silent since the explosive report was released, is Kadima's most popular politician and may be seen as the party's best hope of retaining power. Livni aides said she planned to meet with Olmert later Wednesday.

At Wednesday's Cabinet session, Olmert was expected to appoint a committee to look into the findings of the report, which was compiled by a five-member commission headed by a retired judge.

Israel went to war on July 12, hours after Hezbollah guerrillas crossed into Israel, killed three soldiers and captured two others. The fighting ended without Israel's achieving the two goals Olmert declared , crushing Hezbollah and recovering the captured soldiers.

Instead, almost 4,000 Hezbollah rockets landed in Israel and 158 Israelis were killed. At least 1,000 Lebanese civilians and combatants were also killed, according to Lebanese officials.

Kadima could still potentially replace Olmert without elections, but the front-runner to replace him, Livni, could encounter difficulty in keeping the current coalition together. The ultra-Orthodox Shas party would have trouble serving under a woman, while the nationalist Yisrael Beiteinu party may be wary of cooperating with Livni, who is more dovish than Olmert.

Wednesday's polls showed that if early elections were held, Netanyahu would easily sweep to power.

The Maariv poll, conducted by the Teleseker agency, found that 73 percent of the public wants Olmert to resign while the Dahaf poll conducted for Yediot Ahronot daily said 65 percent favor his ouster. The first survey had a 4.6 percentage point margin of error, while the second had a 4.5 point margin of error.

On Thursday, Olmert's opponents from all sides planned a show of strength at a demonstration in downtown Tel Aviv. Its size and composition could go a long way toward showing Olmert whether he can weather the storm.

The Labor Party holds a primary election May 28 where Defense Minister Amir Peretz, also a target of criticism from the inquiry commission, is likely to be replaced.

Two of the four candidates opposing Peretz have called on Olmert to resign, and Labor could well leave his coalition, probably forcing elections.