Israel is being led by an unfit and incompetent prime minister, opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu said Thursday, one day after the release of the Winograd report on the failures of the government and the military during the Second Lebanon War.
Netanyahu's Likud party convened a meeting in Tel Aviv Thursday to discuss the implications of the damning report. Netanyahu spoke at a press conference held after the meeting, saying that Defense Minister Ehud Barak knows that Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is unfit to lead, and that the public expects him to fulfill his promise and prevent the current leadership from remaining in power.
Barak said during last year's Labor leadership contest that he would quit the government if Olmert did not resign following the release of the final conclusions of the Winograd Commission. Barak has been facing pressure from within his party as well as from without to make good on that pledge.
"The government is in charge of the military, and it failed miserably, that is the main conclusion of the report, as Winograd said yesterday," Netanyahu added. "The [Winograd] committee concluded 'we assign personal blame to the three captains.' While two of the captains [former defense minister Amir Peretz and former chief of staff Dan Halutz] have stepped down, the political echelon and its leader [Olmert] refuse to take responsibility and exhibit personal integrity and leadership - which is what the decisive majority of the public expects them to do."
According to Netanyahu, Israel's citizens are demanding a new and worthy leader, and that will only come about via early elections. He refused to answer reporters' questions at the conclusion of the press conference.
Olmert allies: PM won't quit
Olmert told allies on Thursday that he would not step down as prime minister as the inquiry findings had granted him a reprieve and a boost for U.S.-backed peace talks with the Palestinians.
An official in Olmert's office said Thursday the prime minister would implement recommendations laid out by the government-appointed panel and would "continue to work."
Political allies said Olmert would not quit, and would soon try to build a broader coalition better placed to pursue divisive talks to forge a deal on Palestinian statehood before U.S. President George W. Bush leaves office in a year.
"I was at his place last night. He said that even had the Winograd Commission been firmer in its criticism, he would not have stepped down," Yosef Lapid, former justice minister and Olmert confidant, said. "But given the way it turned out - certainly not. He said this to me."
Olmert told a meeting of his Kadima faction on Thursday that the report posed many difficult questions and vowed that the cabinet would continue to work on fixing the failures of the war.
The prime minister, who had been expected to come under heavy criticism for the decision to launch a ground operation in the final 60 hours of the war, said Wednesday that the report had lifted "the moral stigma from me."
Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni told the Kadima faction Thursday that the government must take the criticisms presented in the Winograd report and turn them into action.
"Let's not delude ourselves," Livni said. "The report was harsh and the words 'war of missed opportunity' are difficult words for the nation of Israel to hear. There are families that paid a very heavy price and the state also paid a price.
"We are all part of a government that made decisions and we started in this room," she said. "The responsibility has not been taken off our shoulders - the contrary."
Livni, who is considered next in line for Kadima leadership, also said: "Even if there were positive comments in the report - and political achievement is one of them - we need to take the overall attitude and translate the criticism into action from here on in."
The foreign minister said this action included two main areas of interest - the political peace process and a focus on defense.
"We must prove that we are acting responsibly, with consideration and with appropriate conduct - only then can we implement the task in accordance with the Winograd report," she said.
The report laid heavy blame on the Israel Defense Forces for the failings of the war, but also said that there had been grave misteps by the political echelons.
Kadima MK Yitzhaki to resign over PM's refusal to step down
Meanwhile, Kadima MK Avigdor Yitzhaki said Thursday he intends to resign to protest Olmert's refusal to step down as a result of the criticism against him in the Winograd report.
In the wake of the committee's interim report, which was published in April last year, Yitzhaki attempted to prompt Olmert's ouster, a move which proved unsuccessful.
In turn, Yitzhaki stepped down as coalition and faction whip and single-handedly called for Olmert's dismissal from within Kadima ranks.
Following Wednesday's report, Olmert enjoyed the backing of an overwhelming majority of Kadima MKs, who stressed that the report made clear that there were no political motivations behind the decision to launch a large-scale offensive after a cease-fire agreement had already been set.
Kadima MKs directed most of their attacks towards opposition leader MK Benjamin Netanyahu (Likud), accusing him of promoting a "blood libel" campaign against Olmert and of "character assassination."
Deputy Premier Haim Ramon called on everyone who participated in the "sleaze campaign" against Olmert to apologize after what he sees as the PM's vindication by the Winograd report.
Likud sources said in reply that "accusing Netanyahu of blood libel is a sordid and misleading spin coming from Olmert and his associates. Olmert had better bow his head to the soldiers, the bereaved families and the public, and apologize for his failures during the war."