- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 29, 2007

TEL AVIV — Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert came under broad pressure to step down ahead of the release today of a preliminary report from a high-powered commission that is expected to declare the government’s handling of last summer’s Lebanon war a failure.

Unlike other Israeli panels set up after controversial wars, the current commission headed by retired Judge Eliyahu Winograd has no mandate to recommend dismissals. But public pressure is likely to determine whether the government survives.

Front-page headlines in the country’s two largest newspapers yesterday said the report will accuse Mr. Olmert of setting overly ambitious goals and giving the military too much leeway in its long battle against Hezbollah.

“The government failed. It caused great political and military damage to the country,” said Gilad Erdan, a parliament member from the Likud Party. “And what the people need now is an election campaign that will determine who will lead the state of Israel at this critical hour.”

Mr. Olmert declined to respond to the leaks at a weekly Cabinet meeting yesterday, and spokesmen said the prime minister would wait until the report is officially released this afternoon to issue his response.

At the same meeting, Army Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi said Hezbollah is attempting to move its forces south of the Litani River for the first time since they were forced to retreat from the Israeli border during the war.

Mr. Olmert, who also is beset by a series of corruption investigations, is expected to resist resignation calls, but history may not be on his side.

Commissions that looked into Israeli failures during the 1973 Yom Kippur War and the 1982 Lebanon War also spared the sitting prime ministers, but they whipped up public pressure that ultimately forced the resignations of both Golda Meir and Menachem Begin, respectively.

Israeli dailies Yediot Ahronot and Ma’ariv both said the highly anticipated report will fault Mr. Olmert for taking a passive role in the war effort and for delaying the dispatch of ground troops to southern Lebanon for fear of heavy losses.

Defense Minister Amir Peretz reportedly is criticized for not overcoming his inexperience in national security, while ex-military chief of staff Lt. Gen. Dan Halutz is reproached for ignoring the danger of Hezbollah’s cross-border kidnapping attempts, which ultimately triggered the war.

Gen. Halutz stepped down several months ago after a series of military inquiries.

Calls for Mr. Olmert’s resignation cut across the political divide.

“Olmert can’t continue as prime minister,” said Yossi Beilin, the leader of the dovish Meretz party. “The whole question is whether he’ll resign … or whether the public will kick him out.”

The report is only an interim assessment dealing with government and military policy in the period after Israel’s May 2000 withdrawal from Lebanon up through the first week of the war. A review of the remainder of the monthlong war is expected later in the summer.

Mr. Olmert reportedly is hoping to weather the storm of criticism long enough to reshuffle his Cabinet, a move intended to boost public approval ratings up from the single-digit levels.

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