Olmert struggling for political survival

The Baltimore Sun

JERUSALEM -- A day after an official investigative committee censured his conduct of last summer's war in Lebanon, the strain was evident on the face of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.

Olmert appeared to be pale and haggard during yesterday's swearing-in of a police chief. His speech did not mention the war investigation, but aides said he had been up all night studying its 171 pages of conclusions, which declared him responsible for a "serious failure" in rushing the military into battle unprepared.

The reprimand has thrown Israel into a leadership crisis. Fighting for his political survival, Olmert coped with the first cracks in his 13-month-old governing coalition yesterday as one Cabinet minister resigned and a member of parliament from his centrist Kadima party joined Israelis across the political spectrum in demanding his resignation.

Other Kadima members were reported to be maneuvering in search of a replacement for the 61-year-old leader, in hopes of clinging to power without the need for an election.

Political analysts said Olmert has been so discredited that his ability to govern effectively, negotiate peace or lead Israel in another war might have been damaged beyond repair.

"He has been doomed to continue to serve in a hostile public atmosphere, on borrowed time," Nahum Barnea, one of Israel's leading commentators, wrote in the newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth.

Olmert's coalition has been troubled from the start by splits over personalities and policies. Last summer's 34-day war broke out during his third month in office, and the army's failure to defeat Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon cost him the confidence of most Israelis, who say they feel more vulnerable to regional threats than they did before.

Israeli officials say Hezbollah is replenishing its firepower with the kind of rockets fired into northern Israel last summer.

They also worry openly about a possible resumption of fighting with the Palestinian group Hamas, which is amassing weapons in the Gaza Strip.

And in Syria, whose government supports Hezbollah and Hamas, officials have suggested recently that Israel's refusal to enter peace talks could lead to war.

U.S. officials are pushing Olmert and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, of Fatah, to revive the peace talks that collapsed six years ago, but they concede that prospects are limited by the weaknesses of both leaders.

Olmert has insisted on staying in office, if only to correct the flaws that led to last summer's rush to war. He has scheduled a Cabinet meeting for today to discuss the government commission's recommendations for overhauling Israel's defense structure.

"He has complete awareness of the lack of public confidence, but he feels that rather than go into a period of turmoil, he must be the one to fix the problems," said Miri Eisen, the prime minister's spokeswoman. "He thinks that through his actions, [public] support will come."

Until this week, aides had said that Olmert expected to replace Defense Minister Amir Peretz with former Prime Minister Ehud Barak or Ami Ayalon, a retired admiral who once led Israel's domestic security agency. Both men are challenging Peretz for the leadership of the left-leaning Labor Party in a primary this month. Peretz was harshly criticized in the war report.

Ayalon said yesterday that Olmert "does not have the public trust to lead the rehabilitation of a torn, frightened society."

If he is elected to head Labor, Ayalon said, he will pull the party out of the government, depriving it of a legislative majority.

Richard Boudreaux writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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