Pressure on Olmert grows after general quits

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The Independent Online

Ehud Olmert was left exposed to mounting pressure on his premiership yesterday after the continuing reverberations over the failures of the Lebanon war claimed the job of Israel's military chief of staff.

Israeli parliamentarians across the spectrum sought to turn the heat on the country's political leadership in the wake of Lt-Gen Dan Halutz's decision to quit in the highest profile resignation so far since the end of the war in August last year.

Critics of the government lost no time in arguing that Lt-Gen Halutz was just one member of a triumvirate responsible for misconduct of the war ­ the others being Mr Olmert and his beleaguered Defence Minister, the Labour leader Amir Peretz, and some called for their resignations.

In a notably unrepentant letter of resignation, Lt-Gen Halutz ­ who was also criticised, as a former air force commander, for relying too much initially on the air power which devastated large parts of southern Lebanon and Beirut ­ said he had launched an "unprecedented" and "profound" internal investigation, including into his own performance, which had now been completed and would be implemented. He said: "I proudly feel that I have reached the goals I set for myself at the end of the conflict in Lebanon and have lived up to my responsibility."

While the war was highly popular among the Israeli public when it started, after Hizbollah guerrillas seized two Israeli soldiers and killed three others in a cross-border raid on 12 July, there was a crescendo of retrospective criticism after it failed to achieve its stated aims of crushing Hizbollah and freeing the two abducted soldiers.

The large majority of 1,200 casualties were Lebanese ­ half of them guerrillas, according to Israeli claims, but mostly civilians, according to the Lebanese government. But 159 Israelis lost their lives, including 39 civilians who died from almost 4,000 rockets fired from Lebanon.

The casualties included 34 Israeli soldiers killed in an expansion of the invasion ordered by Mr Olmert in the final weekend of the war and after the UN had agreed a peace resolution, and there were complaints from soldiers and their families of defective tactics, along with food, water and military supply shortages during the course of the war.

Ophir Pines-Paz, who along with the former prime minister Ehud Barak is one of several aspirants to replace Mr Peretz as Labour leader, declared: " Halutz's step was unavoidable but he was not the only one responsible for the failures of the war ­ the government was too."

Mr Pines-Paz, who himself resigned from the government on the separate issue of Mr Olmert's controversial appointment of the hard-right Avigdor Lieberman as his deputy, added: "The political echelon is not innocent of errors. There were failures, oversights by the political echelon."

From the right, the senior Likud Knesset member Gideon Sa'ar said: "It doesn't make sense for the chief of staff to carry all the blame, while his supervisors at the political level ­ those responsible for the failures of the war ­ escape the responsibility and continue in their positions."

Another prominent right- winger, Effi Eitam, of the National Union-National Religious Party and himself a reservist general, told Army Radio that Lt-Gen Halutz had had no choice but to resign as he no longer had the confidence of the military. But Israel's political leaders must not "absolve themselves of responsibility", he said.

Ran Cohen, a leading parliamentarian in the left-wing Meretz, was quoted by Israel Radio as declaring: "Now it is clear how great the leadership crisis really is in Israel, as Olmert and Peretz, whose own positions are shaky, will be appointing the new chief of staff." Analysts speculated yesterday that, while Mr Olmert and Mr Peretz, though weakened, remained safe until the interim report of the state-appointed commission of inquiry under the retired judge, Eliyahu Winograd ­ probably in a few weeks' time ­ their positions could deteriorate subsequently. Although the inquiry was widely depicted as a convenient way for Mr Olmert to avoid a full blown State Commission, there has been increasing speculation that it could prove much more critical and independent-minded than orginally expected. Lt-Gen Halutz's resignation ahead of its report will be seen as confirming that view.

Gerald Steinberg, professor of political studies at Bar Ilan University, said that, while Lt-Gen Halutz's resignation had left Mr Olmert and Mr Peretz "a little more vulnerable than before" there was no obvious threat to them before the Winograd commission. But he added it could be much more serious for both "if the commission's report establishes significant failures of the political echelon, and many people expect that to happen". Professor Steinberg said of the commission: "I have always thought that the members were very serious and professional and not the sort of people to pull punches."

As Hizbollah claimed that Lt-Gen Halutz's resignation "proved" that it had been victorious over Israel, Professor Setinberg's colleague Ephraim Inbar, head of the university's BESA Centre for strategic studies, went further, saying Mr Olmert was an "ephemeral figure" and that Lt-Gen Halutz's resignation was "the beginning of an avalanche".