Mon, Aug 14, 2006 - Page 7 News List

Israelis turn on Olmert ahead of UN ceasefire

POLITICAL FALLOUT The prime minister now faces growing demands to stand down after failing to deliver total victory over Hezbollah in Lebanon

THE OBSERVER , TEL AVIV

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, center, chairs the weekly Cabinet meeting in Jerusalem yesterday. Olmert is under increasing pressure from Israelis unhappy with the UN ceasefire plan and the lack of results in the campaign against Hezbollah in Lebanon. Seated at the table are, from left, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Transportation Shaul Mofaz, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, Olmert, Cabinet Secretary Yisrael Maimon and Vice Premier Shimon Peres.

PHOTO: AP

The future of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert on Saturday night was hanging on how successfully he could sell his citizens the idea that the country had been "victorious" in the "war in the north" as criticism of his shaky performance began to escalate amid the first calls for his resignation.

While the prime minister's allies and government officials lined up to express satisfaction about the outcome of the UN ceasefire resolution passed while the fighting continued, attempts to present a "victory" to the Israeli public could not disguise the deep sense of disquiet over the operation's failures and fears that Hezbollah might manage to emerge "victorious" in the coming days.

For most of the past month as he has prosecuted his war, the Israeli leader has enjoyed high approval ratings and almost unanimous political support across the political spectrum. On Friday he received a call in his office from former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, head of the Likud party, who has been generally supportive of the government's actions against Hezbollah, saying he would support the campaign as long as the government did not show signs of weakness and finished the job.

Netanyahu told Olmert that as long as fighting continued the right-wing opposition was fully behind him.

But some on the right have begun to portray the UN resolution and Israel's expected approval of it as a capitulation by Olmert's government. They included Limor Livnat, a former education minister and current Likud member of parliament, and on Friday, former agriculture minister Yisrael Katz, also of the Likud party, became the first parliamentarian to openly call on Olmert to resign.

Katz's demand came on the back of a groundswell of outspoken and often scathing criticism of the government's performance from leading Israeli commentators published in this weekend's newspapers.

In a front-page story headlined "Olmert must go," Ari Shavit, a respected commentator in the daily Haaretz, tore into the prime minister, saying he had left Israeli appearing weak and vulnerable in the face of an increasingly confident Hezbollah. In more than 300 responses on the newspaper's Web site, the comments, many from Israeli Jews, were mostly supportive of Shavit's critique.

Shavit scoffed at a new ground offensive -- launched even as the UN ceasefire resolution was signed -- as a publicity gimmick and raised the question of whether the government has a future.

"I think once a truce is installed you will have political turmoil in Israel and you will have a very serious process of soul searching which will also have political expression," he said.

"If Prime Minister Olmert is to survive, he will have to make a major reshuffle. Things will not go back to where they were before."

"This has been a terrible shock. This has been a very dramatic event in Israel's history and it is still too early to tell what the full political implications will be. I find it improbable to believe that the government as it is will remain in power for many years. If there is no significant achievement for Israel at the very last moment, Olmert will find it very difficult to tell people we went to war for certain aims and failed to achieve them. He desperately needs some last-minute achievement and that's why we see the Israeli troops moving north," Shavit said.

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