Israelis look for someone to fill political void

Mass rally scheduled tonight to call for Olmert's resignation

May 03, 2007|By John Murphy | John Murphy,Sun Foreign Reporter

ASHKELON, Israel -- The marchers had little in common. There was a father of five, a college student from Los Angeles, an unemployed mother and a 22-year-old army sergeant mourning the loss of eight of his soldiers killed during last summer's war in Lebanon.

What brought them together yesterday on a busy highway south of Tel Aviv was their shared disgust for Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. They were walking to a mass rally scheduled tonight in Tel Aviv, where tens of thousands of demonstrators are expected to call for Olmert's resignation.

United in purpose, the marchers were less certain about what should happen if they achieve their goal. Who should replace Olmert? Who can restore confidence in the government again? Are there any Israeli leaders they can trust?

"No, they're all dead," Hava Gad said flatly, taking a break on a steamy spring morning. "Begin is dead. Ben Gurion is dead. ..."

Her voice trailed off as she searched for the names of other Israeli icons such as Menachem Begin and Israel's founder and first prime minister, David Ben Gurion, who were revered by Israelis.

As pressure mounts on Olmert to step down after a scathing report on his failures during the war in Lebanon, Israelis appear to miss their past leaders more than ever.

It's been nearly a year and a half since former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon had a massive stroke and fell into a coma. A bold army general who fought in all of Israel's major conflicts, Sharon was regarded as a father figure whom even his enemies respected. His absence created a political void in Israel that has only deepened with Olmert in power.

Scandal after scandal has visited the government in the last year. Besides Olmert's failures during the war against Hezbollah, he is under investigation for alleged corruption and a dubious real estate deal. Israeli President Moshe Katzav faces rape charges, and Olmert's justice minister, Haim Ramon, had to resign when he was charged with sexual misconduct after forcing a female soldier to kiss him. He was found guilty of indecent behavior.

During a widely acclaimed speech at a rally in Tel Aviv last fall, Israeli writer David Grossman, whose son was killed in last year's war, captured the public mood in Israel when he said: "One of the most difficult outcomes of the recent war is the heightened realization that at this time there is no king in Israel, that our leadership is hollow."

Yesterday, there was a fresh wave of calls for Olmert to resign, including from his foreign minister, Tzipi Livni, a senior member of his Kadima party.

"In my meeting with the prime minister, I expressed my opinion that resignation is the right thing as far as he is concerned," she said.

She was joined by Avigdor Itzhaki, chairman of the Kadima party's Knesset members and head of the ruling coalition, who resigned in protest of Olmert last night.

Olmert stood firm, for the first time striking back at his adversaries.

"Anyone who runs to exploit the situation in order to make political gains of one kind or another, I advise you to slow down," said Olmert, who vowed to enact reforms in the government so the failures of last summer's war are not repeated.

But Olmert is widely viewed as the problem. According to one poll yesterday, Olmert's support stands at 1.9 percent, "which means that there may be more people in Israel who believe that Elvis Presley is alive than people who support Olmert," wrote Nadav Eyal in the Ma'ariv newspaper.

Polls conducted this week also suggest that the hard-line right-wing leader Benjamin Netanyahu is the most popular leader, although his support is not overwhelming. Neck and neck in second and third place are Livni, Israeli's highly regarded foreign minister, and Shimon Peres, 83, Israel's vice premier and one of the last of the country's founding fathers.

None of the marchers had strong feelings for a successor to Olmert. Netanyahu's name was met with a shrug. Livni's also drew no favorable response. Suggestions that Peres, a well-known figure outside Israel but a leader who gets mixed reviews in Israel, might be a possibility were met with laughter.

"There's no candidate in my opinion," said Elad Atiya, an army sergeant from Beer Sheva, who blamed Olmert and the defense ministry for mishandling the war, in which eight of his soldiers were killed and 23 wounded.

While fighting in Lebanon, his unit never received clear orders, Atiya said. His unit's equipment was faulty and soldiers ran out of water, food and ammunition.

"There was lots of confusion and a lack of coordination," he said.

It was his frustration with the government that brought him out yesterday.

If they couldn't agree on who might lead Israel, the marchers did agree that it was critical for Israel to change leaders immediately given the security threats to the country.

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