JERUSALEM – Members of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s Kadima party held a confidential meeting today discussing whether they will ask Olmert to resign, with some urging the Israeli leader be immediately replaced with either Former Prime Minister Shimon Peres or Foreign Minister Tzippy Livni.
The meeting follows the release of an interim report yesterday slamming Olmert’s handling of last summer’s war in Lebanon against the Hezbollah militia. The report has prompted a flurry of demands from around the country for Olmert to resign. A rally planned for Thursday, some are calling historic, is expected to draw hundreds of thousands calling for Olmert to step down.
Avigdor Yitzhaki, a member of the opposition Labor party and chairman of Olmert’s government coalition, today held a meeting with top Kadima lawmakers in which the replacement of Olmert was discussed. Olmert’s Kadima party last year forged a unity government with Labor.
According to sources familiar with the contents of the meeting, Kadima ministers in attendance were in agreement Olmert must immediately resign. The lawmakers discussed the formation of a group of Kadima ministers who would approach Olmert together and ask him to resign.
Most Kadima officials at the meeting agreed Livni should replace Olmert as head of Kadima until new elections are held. Many recent polls here showed former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his Likud party would trounce any new elections.
Some top Labor ministers, also in attendance at today’s meeting, called for Olmert to be replaced by Peres, who bolted the Labor party to join Kadima in 2006. Although never elected to Israel’s highest office, Peres served twice as prime minister, once following the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and another time in an unusual deal in which he led a rotating unity government for two years.
The interim report widely criticized Olmert’s lack of defense experience and the prime minister’s decision-making process during the Lebanon War. Neither Livni nor Peres has extensive military experience.
The report blasted Olmert and the military high command for rushing into an unplanned conflict that cost 162 Israeli lives but failed to destroy Hezbollah or free two Israeli soldiers captured in a Hezbollah border raid.
Olmert repeatedly had said the purpose of the war was to rescue the abducted troops and seriously dent Hezbollah’s capabilities. Last week, a senior war planner admitted the Israeli army determined within hours a military operation wouldn’t result in the soldiers return, even though Olmert stated it would throughout the conflict.
Olmert also was slammed for failing to appropriately consult with military experts before or during the war.
The wording of the report’s criticism of Olmert was much harsher than expected, since the report’s authors were appointed by Olmert.
Olmert yesterday said “it would not be right” for him to resign until he had corrected faults identified in the report.
The prime minister said since the report didn’t call for him to step down he shouldn’t be asked to. But the interim report was not authorized to recommend the resignation of top officials.
Reaching out to left
As WND reported last week, in anticipation of the report, Olmert held meetings with leading leftist figures pledging to carry out Israeli withdrawals in exchange for their continued support. The sources said Olmert told the leftist leaders he is willing to reach a final status agreement with the Palestinians, including an Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank, which borders Jerusalem and is within rocket range of Tel Aviv.
During the war in Lebanon, more than 3,000 Hezbollah rockets were fired at Israeli population centers, killing 43 civilians. Israeli troop casualties totaled 119, with many soldiers killed by anti-tank fire during periods the soldiers were ordered to stand down and maintain positions outside Lebanese cities and villages.
Since the war, there have been widespread calls for Olmert to resign. The prime minister has faced devastatingly low poll numbers, but some analysts speculated his ratings could rise if he reached out to his leftist base and conducted negotiations with the Palestinian Authority or Syria. Already, Israel Defense Forces chief Dan Halutz has resigned.
The final report into the war is expected to be especially critical of Olmert’s decision to launch a massive ground offensive in August, just 48 hours before a United Nations cease-fire resolution was imposed to end 34 days of military confrontations between Israel and Hezbollah.
According to IDF sources, the Israeli army had petitioned for the large-scale invasion since the start of the war in July. The sources said Olmert denied the operation until the last minute. Thirty-three Israeli soldiers were killed in the invasion, which succeeded in reaching Lebanon’s Litani River – about 18 miles from the Israeli border, encompassing the swath of territory from which Hezbollah fired most of its rockets into northern Israel.
Former IDF chief of staff Moshe Ya’alon charged soldiers’ lives were lost in vain, and that Olmert ordered the operation for political reasons.
“That was a spin move,” Ya’alon said. “It had no substantive security-political goal, only a spin goal. It was meant to supply the missing victory picture. You don’t do that. You don’t send soldiers to carry out a futile mission after the political outcome has already been set. I consider that corrupt.”
Ya’alon said “that is why people have to resign.”
“For that you don’t even need a commission of inquiry,” he said. “Whoever made that decision has to assume responsibility and resign.”
Asked if he specifically was suggesting Olmert resign, Ya’alon replied, “Yes. [Olmert] can’t say he didn’t know. He can’t say that. … The war’s management was a failure, and he is responsible for that. The final operation was particularly problematic, and he was directly involved in that. He was warned and did not heed the warnings. Therefore, he must resign.”
WND reported last August military leaders here have been quietly probing whether Olmert knew a cease-fire would be imposed within two days when, after a month of fighting in Lebanon, he green-lighted the large-scale ground operation to reach the Litani.
“It’s possible Olmert knew a cease-fire was coming. If so, our stepped-up operation that he approved two days earlier was a pointless exercise in which troops were killed. This is a very serious situation,” a senior military official told WND, speaking on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to talk to the media.
After Israeli soldiers reached the Litani, with 33 dying during the ensuing battles, troop advances were halted some 48 hours later in line with the cease-fire. The Israeli troops gradually withdrew their positions in the following days.
Israeli military officials tell WND that from the start of the Jewish state’s campaign in Lebanon July 12, the IDF petitioned for the deployment of up to 40,000 ground troops to advance immediately to the Litani River and from there work their way back to the Israeli border while surrounding, and then cleaning out, Hezbollah strongholds under heavy aerial cover.
But Olmert, at first, only approved aerial assaults, they say. After Hezbollah retaliated by firing large numbers of rockets into Israel, the Olmert government approved a smaller ground offensive of up to 8,000 soldiers who, according to military officials, were not directed to advance to the Litani. The IDF was charged with cleaning out Hezbollah’s bases within about three miles of the Israeli border.
IDF leaders told WND they suffered in “very specific” ways on the battlefield because of a lack of sufficient ground troops. They cited instances in which they claimed there were not enough soldiers to surround key villages, such as Bint Jbail in southern Lebanon, allowing Hezbollah fighters to infiltrate cities after the IDF began combat inside the areas.
After nearly four weeks of fighting, Olmert’s cabinet in August approved the larger assault for which the IDF had petitioned, authorizing about 40,000 troops to enter Lebanon and advance to the Litani River. The IDF estimated it would need about three days to reach central Lebanon and another four to six weeks to successfully wipe out the Hezbollah infrastructure in the areas leading back to the Israeli border.
But less than three days after the Israeli army was given a green light to advance, a cease-fire was imposed and the Jewish state suspended operations.
“If Olmert did not know a cease-fire was coming, then our reaching the Litani would have been crucial for the continued battle,” the military official said. “We needed to clean out those areas to defeat Hezbollah. If he did know, Olmert sent our troops to their deaths for nothing other than to prove we can reach the Litani.”
The official charged that whether the IDF reached the Litani or not, the cease-fire agreement would still call for the Lebanese army and an international force to deploy in the area.
Halutz previously told the Knesset the decision to expand the ground operation and advance to the Litani River was not made with the knowledge that the fighting would end within 48 hours.
“When we began the operation, we did not know we only had 48 hours. We knew a diplomatic process was set to begin, but we didn’t know we’d have to stop after 48 hours,” said Halutz to the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee.
He noted that when the decision to expand the fighting was made, the U.N. Security Council had not yet approved a resolution on the cease-fire between Israel and Hezbollah.
Halutz’s comments incensed some military leaders.
“He is admitting to our worst fears,” said the senior military leader. “That our fighting and lives were subjected to back-and-forth diplomacy.”
Indeed, military officials told WND on several occasions during the Lebanon War, while heavy diplomacy looked to be gaining momentum, such as during Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s visits here, the IDF was asked by the political echelon to halt most operations and troop advances for up to 36 hours while negotiations ran their course.
Military leaders charge some troop battalions, instructed to hold positions outside villages but not to advance, became sitting ducks for Hezbollah anti-tank fire, which killed at least 35 Israeli soldiers. After the diplomacy failed, the military officials say, soldiers were ordered to carry on.
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