Coalition Chair to Present PM With Letter Asking Him to Resign

Aides: Olmert realizes public outcry could force him out; Yitzhaki, Kadima MKs discuss replacing PM with Livni.

Sources in Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's Kadima party said Tuesday that the coalition chairman, Avigdor Yitzhaki, is gathering signatures for a letter he will present to Olmert on Thursday, asking him to resign in the wake of the damning report on the handling of the Second Lebanon War.

Olmert insisted in a televised address to the nation following the release of the report Monday that he would not step down. But officials close to the prime minister said Tuesday night that he realized a public outcry could force him out.

Israel Radio said Tuesday that Yitzhaki would call on Olmert to resign during the Kadima faction meeting Thursday.

Yitzhaki spoke Tuesday with a number of Kadima MKs on the possibility of replacing Olmert in the wake of the report. Several of those who spoke to the coalition chairman told Haaretz afterward that they had discussed the need to replace the prime minister immediately.

Channel 10 television later Tuesday quoted Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni as telling aides that "Olmert must go," while Channel 2 said Livni, who is also deputy prime minister, is seeking a replacement for him.

Channel 2 also reported Tuesday that a majority of the Kadima faction intends to back the call for the prime minister to step down.

During his Tuesday discussions with party lawmakers, Yitzhaki named Livni as the preferred heir to Olmert, which the MKs said they understood to mean that the move had been coordinated with her.

Livni is viewed publicly as the leading candidate to replace Olmert as Kadima chairman. The foreign minister escaped almost any criticism in the Winograd report, and has refrained from providing Olmert with any public support. According to Channel 10, however, Olmert said Tuesday that he does not accept Livni as his successor.

Yitzhaki proposed the formation of a group of lawmakers who would together ask the prime minister to resign, as Kadima's charter does not permit the dismissal of the party chairman. The charter does, however, allow for early party elections to be called, an option which is also on the table.

So far, Marina Solodkin is the only Kadima MK to have publicly called on Olmert to step down. In an interview Tuesday with Army Radio, Solodkin said the report "is so severe, that according to what is written there, [Olmert] must resign."

"Olmert made very serious mistakes during the war," she said. "He acted extremely irresponsibly. What happened yesterday and what is happening now cannot be ignored."

But at least two Kadima lawmakers, Public Security Minister Avi Dichter and Housing Minister Meir Sheetrit, backed Olmert on Tuesday.

"I stand behind Olmert's leadership," said Dichter, during a ceremony at Olmert's office in Jerusalem to inaugurate the new head of Israel Police.

Olmert - who stayed up all night reading the 263-page report, aides said - looked haggard, and he struggled to stay awake at the ceremony. Television cameras caught his eyes closing several times. Confidants spoke of a gloomy atmosphere in his office.

"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," spokeswoman Miri Eisin said, echoing Olmert's comments the night before. "He thinks that through his actions, [public] support will come."

Following the ceremony, Sheetrit maintained that "now is not the time for chopping off heads."

Labor party ministers said they believe that Olmert's chances of surviving until the release of the final report, expected in August, are minimal.

"Even if he is able to survive until then, it is clear, according to the interim report, that after the release of the final report he will have to resign," said a senior Labor minister.

Eitan Cabel, a Labor Party minister without portfolio, announced his resignation from the government on Tuesday.