Olmert's ouster sought

Thousands rally in Tel Aviv

premier vows to stay on

May 04, 2007|By Vita Bekker and Richard Boudreaux | Vita Bekker and Richard Boudreaux,Los Angeles Times

Tel Aviv, Israel -- Under a banner reading "Failures, Go Home," tens of thousands of Israelis from across the political spectrum joined last night in demanding the resignations of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and his defense minister for their performance during last summer's war in Lebanon.

The Israeli leader remained defiant, telling aides that the size and diversity of the crowd would not dissuade him from staying in office.

Police said more than 100,000 demonstrators filled Rabin Square in front of City Hall and spilled into surrounding streets. A grass-roots coalition of army reservists, students and relatives of war dead that organized the protest estimated turnout at 150,000 to 200,000. It was the largest rally against Olmert's government in the 13 months that it has been in office.

"Ehud Olmert, you said you work for us," Meir Shalev, a renowned fiction writer, told the gathering, which jeered every mention of the prime minister's name. "Olmert, you are fired!"

The protest was called after an official inquiry panel concluded Monday that Olmert and Defense Minister Amir Peretz had rushed into war without a detailed plan or realistic goals. In 34 days of fighting, the army failed to crush the Hezbollah militia, stop it from firing rockets into Israel or free two captured soldiers.

While the panel did not call for resignations, its censure triggered an outcry among Israelis, who view the war as a defeat. By a margin of 2-to-1 in most polls this week, they said they want Olmert and Peretz to resign.

Former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the rightist opposition leader, joined yesterday in calling for their ouster.

Participants in the rally converged from all over Israel on a warm, muggy evening. They included secular and religious Jews, hawks and peaceniks, old and young, settlers in yarmulkes or long skirts, and university students - a rare mix reflecting the breadth of disaffection with the country's leaders.

"It's wonderful to be here," said Debbie Stein, a 47-year-old psychologist. "It's the first time I can remember that people from the whole political spectrum want one government out." She joined the crowd in singing an anthem titled "We Deserve Better" that was written for the occasion.

Protesters held aloft signs reading "Elections Now" and "Left and Right Agree: Olmert Go Home." One group carried a mock coffin labeled "Government, RIP." Organizers called for a moment of silence for the 158 Israelis killed during the war, which also caused more than 1,000 deaths in Lebanon.

The rally capped a week of political ferment that threatened to topple Olmert from within his centrist Kadima party. In a showdown Wednesday night, dissidents failed to muster a majority of the party's parliamentary caucus against him.

Vita Bekker and Richard Boudreaux write for the Los Angeles Times.

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