TEL AVIV (Reuters) - Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert faced a major challenge to his pledge to stay in power on Thursday with tens of thousands rallying in Tel Aviv to try to force him to quit over failures in last year’s war in Lebanon.
Three days after an official inquiry savaged the handling of the offensive against Hezbollah guerrillas, Olmert appeared to have weathered the worst of the initial storm — freezing out his own foreign minister, who has called for his resignation, and securing backing in parliament.
As night fell, demonstrators from left and right, both secular and religious, crowded Tel Aviv’s Yitzhak Rabin Square calling for Olmert to go, echoing a parliamentary debate earlier in the day on the inquiry’s report.
Television channels said as many as 150,000 demonstrators were present as parents of soldiers killed in the conflict and prominent local authors, among others, spoke to the crowd.
Author Meir Shalev said: “Mr. Prime Minister, you said that you are our employee, well, you’re fired!”
Olmert has withstood single-digit popularity ratings for most of the nine months since the 34-day war. He has vowed to stay on and “fix the failings” despite opinion polls showing at least two Israelis in three want him to quit.
“The Israeli people don’t trust Olmert and we can’t go on like this. What you hear tonight is the voice of the people and you would need to be deaf not to hear a voice this loud,” rally organizer Uzi Dayan, a retired senior general, told Reuters.
Demonstrator Yigal Armoni added: “We’re here to tell Olmert ... to go. He’s on the edge of a cliff. All he needs is a small push, but tonight we’ll give him a big one.”
Olmert adviser Tal Zilberstein shrugged off the rally, saying it would not prompt the prime minister to think again.
Earlier in parliament, opposition leader and former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu called for early elections — a ballot opinion polls show his right-wing Likud party would win.
“We have to go back to the people and let them have their say,” he said in a speech.
But despite deep cracks appearing since the Winograd Commission issued its interim war inquiry report on Monday, Olmert’s coalition has held together, with little apparent appetite among its members for an election that could go Netanyahu’s way.
On Wednesday, Olmert fended off a public call to resign from Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, his deputy leader, and won critical support from loyalists in their centrist Kadima party.
Israelis have long been accustomed to internal tensions in their coalition governments and relations between Olmert and Livni, who would be poised to replace him as prime minister if he stood down as Kadima leader, have been strained for months.
Olmert and Livni sat side-by-side in their assigned seats in the legislature for the debate, largely ignoring one another.
“In any other country, the government would have resigned,” Danny Yatom, a legislator belonging to Olmert’s main coalition partner, the Labor Party, told parliament.
Labor holds a leadership election on May 28. Israel’s next general election is not due until 2010.
Olmert accepted responsibility for “many mistakes” during the war in which Hezbollah fired 4,000 rockets at Israel in a blow to the Middle East’s mightiest military and Israeli planes bombed southern Beirut, one of the militant group’s strongholds.
But he said he would not resign, insisting he was the best man to correct failings identified by the Winograd Commission. Some 1,200 people were killed in Lebanon, including about 900 civilians, while 117 Israeli troops died, along with 41 civilians killed by rocket strikes in northern Israel.
Additional reporting by Jeffrey Heller