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Rally against Olmert unites Israelis

Israelis carry signs during a mass protest calling for Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's resignation May 3 in Tel Aviv. (Brian Hendler)

Israelis carry signs during a mass protest calling for Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s resignation May 3 in Tel Aviv. (Brian Hendler)

TEL AVIV, Israel (JTA) – Israelis usually can only dream of such unity. The sea of people that filled Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square on the night of May 3 to tell Ehud Olmert to go home represented Israel in all its diversity: Yeshiva students stood shoulder to shoulder with secular university students; hawkish settlers shared signs and stickers of protest with left-wingers.Centrists, anarchists, reservists: On one warm spring night, at least, they spoke with one voice. “Resign, resign” they called in a thunderous chant, their numbers some 100,000 strong. It remains unclear when and if the embattled Israeli prime minister will heed their call, which comes three days after an official report blasted his leadership of the war against Hezbollah last summer. But the message sent was unequivocal. Speakers, many of them bereaved parents who lost sons in this or past conflicts, reserve soldiers and civic activists stood under a banner that read “Failures, Go Home!” Politicians were pointedly not invited to speak – this was to be, as one speaker said, “the evening of the people.”Those who came took their role seriously. “Everyone can make mistakes, but there is no excuse for how Olmert behaved and how he is now not taking responsibility,” said Chava, 65, who traveled to Tel Aviv from Haifa for the demonstration. “Here you see so many kinds of people; everyone is here. I think that says a lot.” “Every citizen holds in his or her hand an indictment of the prime minister,” an army reservist told the cheering crowd, referring to the interim report of the commission appointed to investigate the war. The report said that Olmert’s goals for the war – the return of two captured reserve soldiers and the destruction of Hezbollah – were unrealistic. Along with Olmert, it cited the wartime chief of staff and defense minister for severe failures of judgment. During the fighting, 158 Israelis were killed, along with 1,000 Lebanese. About 4,000 rockets were fired at northern Israel.David Agnon read a letter to the demonstration that he had written to his son Yonatan, killed in the war. “This is the same prime minister who sent you to war without thought, with carelessness – I have no pity for him,” Agnon said.Among those voicing their anger was Miri Noy, 68, from nearby Savyon. “What we need here is a change,” she said, referring to Olmert. “I think it’s chutzpah that he’s still in office. In any proper country he would already have resigned.” Like many in the crowd, Noy was apprehensive about who might follow Olmert into power. Benjamin Netanyahu, a former prime minister and head of the Likud Party, leads in the polls, but no clear favorite has emerged. Noy said she would prefer to see Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni take Olmert’s seat. Livni, like Olmert a member of the Kadima Party, on Wednesday called for the prime minister to resign – but she disappointed many by deciding to remain in the government.Livni’s move was considered overly cautious and she was widely criticized by the Israeli media for not taking bolder action. Ziv, a 31-year-old engineer, said he, his wife and their 3-month-old son had come to demonstrate because they were fed up with Olmert and the direction of the country. Ziv compared Israel’s situation to someone with a personal driver who just wrecked the car. “If all of your life you took buses and taxis and finally you had not only a car but also a private driver, and that driver then wrecked your car and afterward wanted to keep working for you, would you still let him?” he asked. It was an especially lively political rally by Israeli standards, full of chants, protest songs from past wars and conflicts, and sharp opinions. Marcelle Ofek, 42, an educator from Rishon Letzion, plastered herself with stickers, including one that read “Elections, Now.” “I think it’s time the public takes things into their own hands and takes to the streets to say ‘Enough, we are fed up.’ I’m angry, I’m disappointed,” Ofek said. “You vote for people that you hope will help the country.”I want my son to grow up here with a better future than this. I don’t think he should serve in an army where no one cares about him.”Israelis are bitter that soldiers were sent into battle undertrained and without clear missions or adequate reserves of food or water. A speaker who belongs to a forum of residents from the North, which bore the brunt of Hezbollah rockets during the 34-day war, gave voice to the trauma many felt. “We had never felt such failure as we did in this last war,” he said. “We felt we were without a mother, without a father, without a state.”

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