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Israeli Cabinet Minister Resigns in Protest of Olmert's Handling of War in Lebanon

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert faced an onslaught of calls for his resignation and the first cracks in his coalition Tuesday following a government commission's harsh criticism of his handling of Israel's war last summer in Lebanon.

Olmert defiantly declared he would not quit after the panel's report was released Monday, despite the inquiry's conclusion he showed flawed judgment in ordering and directing the attack on Hezbollah guerrillas.

His job appears secure at least for the moment. Despite the public uproar, he remains at the head of a broad coalition government whose members appear reluctant to risk their own jobs by holding new elections.

Olmert's spokeswoman, Miri Eisin, said Tuesday that the prime minister was confident he could recover his eroded authority.

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"He has complete awareness of the lack of public confidence, but he feels that rather than go into a period of turmoil, he must be the one to fix the problems," Eisin said. "He thinks that through his actions, (public) support will come."

But newspaper editorials and commentators demanded that he step down, saying he had lost the confidence of the Israeli people.

The report "contains not even one lenient word to which the prime minister could cling in order to prolong his term," the Haaretz newspaper said in an editorial. "On the Way Out," said the lead headline in the Maariv daily.

Opinion polls predict the opposition Likud Party led by hawkish former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would sweep to victory if a vote were held.

Olmert confidants have said only mass protests could force him to quit. He also might face an uprising within his Kadima Party that might force him out of office.

Should he resign, he could either dissolve parliament and call early elections, or keep parliament intact and let the country's ceremonial president tap another candidate to put together a new coalition. Olmert's popular foreign minister, Tzipi Livni, is considered a top possibility.

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"The only way to get Olmert out of office now is for his Kadima Party to show him the door or for the public to mount such public protests that Kadima will be forced to show him the door," said Reuven Hazan, a political science professor at Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

Olmert called an emergency Cabinet meeting for Wednesday to discuss the war probe. The Knesset, or parliament, also scheduled a special session for Thursday.

In recent weeks, Olmert has been working hard to shore up support within his government.

In a first crack in that backing, Cabinet minister Eitan Cabel of the Labor Party resigned from the Cabinet on Tuesday and called on the prime minister to follow suit.

"He must bear responsibility," Cabel said at a news conference. "I can no longer sit in a government led by Ehud Olmert."

Later Tuesday, Kadima lawmaker Marina Solodkin also urged Olmert to resign — the first member of his party to publicly do so. Solodkin is not a major force in the party, however, and it was not clear whether others would follow. Kadima and Labor are the coalition's two biggest factions.

Olmert aides said the prime minister stayed up all night reading the results of the investigation. At an official event Tuesday, Olmert looked haggard, appearing to nod off several times while waiting to address the audience. On the dais, he was jocular and composed, but pointedly made no reference to the war probe.

Olmert was only months in the job when the war broke out after Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon killed three soldiers and captured two others in a July 12 cross-border raid.

Olmert laid out two main objectives: to retrieve the soldiers and crush Hezbollah. Neither goal was reached during 34 days of fighting, and Israel was traumatized by nearly 4,000 rockets that bombarded northern communities.

Between 1,035 and 1,191 Lebanese civilians and combatants were killed in the fighting, as were 119 Israeli soldiers and 39 civilians, according to official figures from the two sides.

A U.N.-brokered cease-fire pushed Hezbollah away from Israel's border. But Israeli intelligence officials say the group is rearming with the help of its Iranian and Syrian backers.

The inconclusive outcome of the war cracked apart the solid support that Olmert initially enjoyed. The criticism was stoked by reports from returning troops of confused orders, and shortages in food and supplies.

Olmert's opponents have scheduled a mass rally in Tel Aviv on Thursday. Small groups of demonstrators across the country began marches to Tel Aviv on Tuesday ahead of the rally.

A poll commissioned by Israel Radio shortly after the war probe was released showed that 69 percent of those questioned thought Olmert should quit.

Nearly nine months after the war ended, it's not clear how far the public uproar will go. The report's findings restated widespread criticisms of the wartime leadership's performance. What was more surprising was the harsh language.

"The prime minister made up his mind hastily, despite the fact that no detailed military plan was submitted to him and without asking for one," the commission found. "All of these add up to a serious failure in exercising judgment, responsibility and prudence."

The inquiry analyzed the first six days of the war, as well as the six years leading up to the fighting, beginning with Israel's 2000 pullout from Lebanon. A full report on the entire war is scheduled for release this summer.

The report also criticized Defense Minister Amir Peretz, a former union chief, for his inexperience and said wartime military chief Lt. Gen. Dan Halutz "acted impulsively," misrepresented the army's readiness and suppressed dissenting opinions.

Halutz resigned in January, while Peretz is expected to leave office after his party holds primaries on May 28. Polls indicate Peretz will not be re-elected as Labor leader, and he has said if he wins, he will demand a different Cabinet post.