- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 3, 2007

TEL AVIV — Tens of thousands of Israelis rallied in a Tel Aviv square after sundown yesterday, demanding that Prime Minister Ehud Olmert resign because of a government inquiry’s scathing criticism of his handling of the inconclusive war in Lebanon.

Mr. Olmert remained defiant, hoping to beat back a wave of calls for him to step down. A day after his popular foreign minister joined the chorus, Mr. Olmert’s aides argued that it was not a mortal political blow, but conceded a large-scale public protest campaign could bring him down.

Turnout on the square in front of Tel Aviv’s City Hall appeared to top 100,000, but police refused to estimate the crowd’s size.

The rally drew a cross-section of Israelis — moderates and hard-liners, secular and religious, young and old — a rare mix symbolizing the widespread dissatisfaction with Mr. Olmert.

On a warm, muggy night, the crowd was well-behaved, and the police stationed across the square had nothing to do. Demonstrators carried signs reading, “Elections now” and “Olmert, go home.” A small group held aloft a mock black coffin labeled, “Government, RIP.”

“Failures, Go Home!” read a banner erected behind the podium, where parents of soldiers killed in last summer’s conflict spoke to the crowd.

Organizers decided not to let politicians speak at the rally, said retired Gen. Uzi Dayan.

Moshe Muskal, 50, whose son Rafnael was killed in the war, was among parents who addressed the gathering. “I am glad that the public is not passive or despairing,” he told the Associated Press afterward. He said the soldiers “fulfilled their mission fully. Our mission is to make our country a little bit better.”

The protesters came from across Israel, including 35 who walked 45 miles from the southern town of Sderot, a frequent target of rockets fired by Palestinians in Gaza.

Edan Mehallel, 16, of the port city of Haifa, said he lived through the Hezbollah rocket attacks during the war and came to make a difference. “The more people there are, the more influence the demonstration will have,” he said.

Some previous political demonstrations in Israel have attracted hundreds of thousands of protesters, and the size of this one was seen as a critical sign of the extent of public anger.

Past protests in the Tel Aviv square have started political earthquakes. A demonstration after Israel’s hard-fought 1973 war to turn back invasions by Egypt and Syria led to the resignations of Prime Minister Golda Meir and Defense Minister Moshe Dayan.

Israel went to war against Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon on July 12 after guerrillas crossed into Israel, killing three soldiers and capturing two.

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