Pressure builds on Israeli leaders

After army chief steps down, some critics call for resignations of Olmert and Peretz

January 18, 2007|By Joel Greenberg | Joel Greenberg,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

JERUSALEM -- The resignation of the Israeli army's chief of staff over failings in last summer's war against Hezbollah in Lebanon brought renewed calls yesterday for the departure of his superiors: Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Defense Minister Amir Peretz.

The announcement early yesterday that the army chief, Lt. Gen. Dan Halutz, was stepping down increased the pressure on Olmert, whose popularity has plunged since the war and who now faces a criminal investigation, announced Tuesday, into his role in the government's sale of a major bank.

Severely weakened domestically, Olmert appears unlikely to take bold steps in a revived peace effort pushed by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice during a Middle East visit this week.

Olmert said that he was "very sorry" to see Halutz go and that the general had rejected his request to reconsider.

Halutz submitted his resignation letter to Olmert on Sunday but delayed the announcement until the early hours of yesterday morning.

On Tuesday a former chief of staff, Dan Shomron, who investigated the conduct of the war by the army command, presented his findings to a parliamentary committee and said the campaign was waged without an overall goal.

The report was one of a series of internal inquiries by the army that have uncovered serious flaws in the military's performance.

Olmert and Peretz have been widely blamed along with Halutz for what many Israelis consider to be an inconclusive outcome of the 34 days of fighting that ended Aug. 14.

The army was unable to stop Hezbollah from firing thousands of rockets at northern Israel, the guerrillas proved a more stubborn adversary than expected, and two Israeli soldiers seized in a cross-border raid that set off the fighting were not returned.

Halutz, who also drew criticism from inside the military for his management of the war, wrote in his resignation letter that he had decided to step down after the army had completed its inquiries into the fighting and drawn up a plan to apply the lessons learned.

"For me the word `responsibility' bears great meaning: It is everything, from A to Z," Halutz wrote to Olmert.

"My sense of responsibility has led me to remain in my position until now, and it has led me to put this letter on your desk today."

The resignation was welcomed by critics of Halutz, who said that though it was long overdue, it showed a measure of accountability rarely seen in Israeli public life.

The critics said Peretz and Olmert should go next.

"If we take examples from the past, it ultimately didn't stop at the chief of staff," said former Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom of the opposition Likud party.

"I don't see how this can be any different, and we may see a snowball here. Undoubtedly this decision significantly shakes the prime minister, defense minister and the whole government."

Ofir Pines, a lawmaker from the Labor party who quit his Cabinet post last year after a far-right party was added to the governing coalition, said responsibility for the Lebanon war did not end with the military.

"Halutz's step was unavoidable," he told Army Radio. "But he was not the only one responsible for the failures of the war. The government was, too."

Joel Greenberg writes for the Chicago Tribune.

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