Israelis rally, calling for the resignation of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert

TEL AVIV – An estimated 200,000 Israelis today attended an historic rally in Tel Aviv demanding Prime Minister Ehud Olmert immediately resign following the publication this week of a probe slamming his decision-making during last summer’s war in Lebanon.

“Olmert you failure, Go Home,” “Israel rejects Olmert,” and “Bereaved families against Olmert,” were just some of the placards carried by protesters at the massive gathering at Rabin Square in Tel Aviv, which is known as a leftist stronghold.

Attendees included all ages and both secular and religious Israelis.

Several right-wing leaders earlier expressed caution regarding the rally, which was planned by officials associated with liberal parties and organizations, leaving some to speculate the turnout would be low.

But Tel Aviv’s police department, which has previously been accused by the media of issuing low crowd estimates at past rallies, estimated more than 100,000 were in attendance. That crowd number was issued at the start of the rally, which visibly grew exponentially larger throughout the event. Rally organizers said over 200,000 were present.

“Ehud Olmert, you said you work for us. Olmert, you are fired!” said the evening’s keynote speaker, Israeli author Meir Shalev. “Amir Peretz – you said [Hezbollah leader Hassan] Nasrallah will never forget your name. Neither will we.”

“Israel rejects Olmert” was a placard carried by protesters calling for the resignation of the Israeli prime minister

“Olmert and Peretz, we have received authorization that both of you came to power in the wrong positions,” he continued. “You can’t handle the position, you failed, go home.”

Uzi Dayan, the chairman of a political party here, spoke and called on the prime minister to “do the right thing: Resign.”

“This square has seen happy and sad days and many demonstrations, but there have never been so many Israelis from across the spectrum, religious, secular, right, left, from the cities and from the countryside, the old and young. We are all brothers,” Dayan said.

“Stop clinging to your chair. We won’t forgive you if you break your promises. Olmert, do the right thing and resign,” said Dayan to a crowd that erupted in cheers.

Ronny Zvigenbaum, the representative of reserve soldiers, said that the prime minister’s failures were “unforgivable and written in blood.”

“Today you are trying to hold on to your job. But we need to hold on to our lives. Every day you are in power, you endanger the State. Look at this full square prime minister, it says it all. We are not spin doctors for the government but ordinary citizens … and we call on you to resign,” he said.

An interim Lebanon war probe released Monday widely criticized Olmert’s decision-making during last summer’s conflict against the Hezbollah militia. The report blasted Olmert and the military high command for rushing into what it termed 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 and Peretz, the defense minister, were strongly criticized 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 this week said it “would not be right” for him to resign until he had corrected faults identified in the report.

The prime minister stated 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.”

Prior knowledge?

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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