JERUSALEM – Defense Minister Amir Peretz defied calls to resign and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert ignored similar demands after the Israeli army chief of staff stepped down over the military's failure to stop Hezbollah rocket attacks from Lebanon last summer.
Public and political pressure on the two embattled leaders was noticeably building Wednesday, reinforcing the feeling that Lt. Gen. Dan Halutz was just the first to go.
A poll broadcast Wednesday evening on Channel 10 TV showed that 69 percent wanted Olmert to resign, and 85 percent hoped Peretz would quit. The Smith Research poll by telephone questioned 425 Israelis and quoted a margin of error of 4.8 percent.
"Halutz's resignation is a positive and unavoidable move," said Ophir Pines-Paz, a member of Peretz's Labor Party. "But the political leadership also has to take responsibility."
In Lebanon, Hezbollah legislator Hussein Haj Hassan called Halutz's resignation "the result of the defeat of the Israeli enemy in Lebanon." Demonstrators in Beirut, at their nightly anti-government protest, celebrated with fireworks when the announcement of Halutz's resignation was made.
In his first public comment since Halutz resigned, Peretz warned Israel's enemies, "Do not misinterpret the army chief's decision to resign as a sign of weakness."
Speaking Wednesday evening in Haifa at a graduation ceremony for naval commanders, Peretz said Halutz's decision was "premature. I am sorry he won't be with us to complete the task" of restoring the army after the failures of the summer's war in Lebanon.
Peretz insisted that he would continue to guide the reforms — instead of resigning. Olmert and Peretz hoped to pick a new army chief within days.
Olmert did not comment publicly about the resignation calls. "It's business as usual in the prime minister's office," said his spokeswoman, Miri Eisin.
But pressure on Olmert and Peretz could increase ahead of the release of a wide-ranging government probe into the war. The investigative panel, focusing on the performance of military and political leaders, is expected to announce its conclusions in the coming weeks.
Halutz stepped down after internal army inquiries found widespread problems in the military's performance. Halutz, a decorated former combat pilot, had rejected calls to resign, defending the army's performance in Lebanon.
Israel launched the Lebanon war hours after Hezbollah guerrillas killed three Israeli soldiers and captured two others in a July 12 cross-border raid.
Critics say Olmert moved too hastily with a campaign that ended without achieving its declared aims — recovering the captured soldiers and crushing Hezbollah. Soldiers returning from the battlefield said they were poorly trained, lacked basic ammunition and food supplies, and received conflicting orders from superiors.
Nearly 160 Israelis and more than 1,000 Lebanese died in the fighting, according to tallies by government agencies, humanitarian groups and The Associated Press.
The count includes 250 Hezbollah fighters that the group's leaders now say died during Israel's intense air, ground and sea bombardments in Lebanon. Israel has estimated its forces have killed 600 Hezbollah fighters.
Many Israelis criticized the army's inability to stop Hezbollah from firing nearly 4,000 rockets into northern Israel. Analysts say that failure has dealt a major blow to the army's prestige in the Arab world and its ability to deter attacks.
Even before the army commander's resignation, Olmert's public standing was scraping bottom. An opinion poll published last week showed his approval rating at just 14 percent, and said his Kadima Party would lose if new elections were held.
Peretz's public standing is equally dismal. The former union leader won the defense portfolio under a coalition deal with Olmert's Kadima Party, despite his scant military experience.
The war's many flaws only cemented sweeping doubts about his fitness to serve as defense minister, and he now faces multiple challenges to his leadership within his own Labor Party, which is scheduled to hold primaries in May.
Halutz's resignation also underscored the icy relations between Olmert and Peretz. Olmert's office said he received Halutz's resignation letter on Sunday. But defense officials said Peretz was informed of the resignation only late Tuesday, just before the letter was made public.