Pressure builds on Olmert to step down

Pressure grew on Ehud Olmert to quit as Israeli prime minister on Tuesday as a damning report on his leadership in last year’s Lebanon war prompted the first resignation from his cabinet.

Eitan Cabel, minister without portfolio and secretary-general of the Labour party, said: “I can no longer sit in a government headed by Ehud Olmert.”

Amid speculation the departure could prompt a series of defections, Mr Cabel said: “I will see to it that my resignation will lead other coalition partners to realise that it is everyone’s duty to work towards Olmert’s resignation.”

Mr Olmert has so far resisted increasing demands that he quit, declaring in a brief televised broadcast on Monday night that it would be wrong to resign despite a government inquiry’s judgment earlier in the day that his conduct of the war had been a failure.

Mr Cabel was a relatively junior minister in the coalition cabinet and member of a party already uneasy about sharing power in a scandal-plagued administration alongside ministers from the far right.

Ministers from Mr Olmert’s centrist Kadima party were so far standing firm, although early expressions of support did not include one from Tzipi Livni, foreign minister and his most likely successor as party leader.

Marina Solodkin, a Kadima parliamentarian, broke ranks and said: “Olmert made very serious mistakes during the war. He acted extremely irresponsibly. What happened yesterday and what is happening now cannot be ignored.”

Most coalition politicians might be less eager to see Mr Olmert go immediately than Israeli voters, about seven out of 10 of whom believe he should resign, according to a series of snap polls. A more tangible indication of public disaffection will come tomorrow when protesters, including relatives of Israel’s war dead, rally in Tel Aviv.

A poll this week indicated Benjamin Netanyahu, the opposition Likud leader, would win 26 per cent of votes in early elections, far ahead of Ms Livni, his nearest rival, on nine per cent.

Labour, whose leader Amir Peretz was also blasted in Monday’s Winograd report, faces a leadership contest on May 28 and might decide to hold its fire until then. An aide to Ami Ayalon, one of the two front-runners, was quoted as saying the former security chief would call for Labour to quit the coalition if he were chosen as party leader.

The five-member Winograd panel, that Mr Olmert had himself appointed, made no recommendation that he or Mr Peretz should resign. However, its interim report included a veiled warning that such a recommendation might be included in its final report in July.

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