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Olmert’s Grip Seen Slipping After Foreign Minister’s Challenge

After months of trying to keep the Israeli public on his side, Ehud Olmert must now stave off rebellion in his innermost political circle.

Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, the prime minister’s most popular deputy, caused an uproar Wednesday by calling on him to quit over a commission of inquiry that faulted his handling of last year’s Lebanon war.

“I told the prime minister that I thought resignation was the right thing to do,” Livni said at a press conference.

Staking out her own claim on the top office, Livni added that she opposed calling early elections and wanted the Kadima Party that she and Olmert helped found to stay in power.

“Kadima needs to choose its leadership in a democratic manner, in primary elections, and when the time comes I plan to run as a candidate,” Livni said. “Now is the time to restore the public’s trust in the government.”

Opinion polls suggest Livni rivals opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu as the politician Israelis would most like to see succeed Olmert, whose approval ratings have been in the doldrums since last summer’s war against Hezbollah.

But Israelis are more evenly divided on whether the country can afford new elections barely a year after the Olmert government took power, especially given looming crises with the Hamas-led Palestinian Authority and Iran’s nuclear program.

Despite being drubbed by the Winograd Commission, which this week issued its interim report on the early days of the war, Olmert has vowed to stay on.

“It is primarily incumbent on this government, which bears responsibility for the failings, also to be responsible for fixing them,” he told his Cabinet.

“I suggest that all those who are hastening to take advantage of this report for political gain slow down.”

Olmert had no immediate public reaction to Livni’s challenge. Israeli pundits speculated that he could fire her, perhaps naming former defense chief Shaul Mofaz a! s the ne w foreign minister.

Livni’s rebellion was echoed by Avigdor Yitzhaki, a senior Kadima lawmaker.

“A leader can only lead a public where he has, first and foremost, legitimacy and trust,” Yitzhaki told Israel Radio ahead of a crucial Kadima faction meeting.

But when the caucus convened, Olmert enjoyed what Vice Premier Shimon Peres, another senior Kadima member, described as “unprecedented” support. Only Yitzhaki resigned.

Olmert’s next test will be an anti-government rally scheduled for Thursday in Tel Aviv and organized by embittered veterans of the war, bereaved families and opposition figures.

It appears doubtful that there will be a massive turnout, whether because of public apathy or fears among Olmert’s left-wing critics that by assailing him they could inadvertently sweeten the re-election prospects of the hawkish Netanyahu.

Of 501 respondents asked in a Ma’ariv survey whether they would attend the demonstration, only 13.1 percent said yes, and 81.2 percent said no.

Livni, a former Mossad spy with a decade in Israeli politics, has long been touted as a potential prime minister.

“Livni’s time has come” was the title of a front-page commentary by Yediot Achronot’s Nahum Barnea.

But other observers faulted Livni, 48, for not throwing down the gauntlet to Olmert more forcefully and questioned whether she has the necessary killer instinct.

“Tzipi Livni’s choice of rhetoric was that of a scout leader,” said Amnon Rabinovitch of Channel Two television. “This is not serious politicking.”

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