PM Rallies Kadima MKs to Stave Off Livni Putsch and Readies for Reshuffle

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert won a tactical victory yesterday in the power struggle at Kadima, rallying the majority of party MKs to his support, even after Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni's press conference in which she urged him to resign.

As of yesterday there are only three rebels in Kadima whose intentions have been made public: Livni and MKs Avigdor Yitzhaki and Marina Solodkin.

In an announcement yesterday, the faction said it is backing the prime minister and supports his decision to quickly implement the recommendations of the Winograd Committee. The statement also stressed that Olmert intends to work to bolster the coalition.

Vice Premier Shimon Peres said at the end of the meeting that he was not surprised at the extent of the support for the prime minister.

The head of the Kadima faction and coalition chairman, Avigdor Yitzhaki, resigned at a party meeting yesterday after telling Olmert that he would quit if the prime minister did not heed calls for him to do so.

The post will be filled by MK Tzachi Hanegbi for the next two weeks.

"I intend to implement the recommendations of the [war] report down to the last detail," spokesman Jacob Galanti quoted Olmert as saying.

"I am in a personally uncomfortable position, but I will not shirk my responsibility and will fix all the mistakes," a senior official quoted Olmert as telling Kadima legislators at the closed-door meeting.

Earlier, Livni said Olmert must resign in the wake of the harsh criticism in the Winograd report on his handling of the Second Lebanon War, making her the most senior Israeli official to call on him to quit.

"I told him that resignation would be the right thing for him to do," she told reporters after an hour-long meeting with Olmert.

"It's not a personal matter between me and the prime minister; this issue is more important than both of us," she said.

Livni said she would oppose the nomination of a prime minister from another party, and expressed confidence that Olmert's resignation would facilitate the establishment of a different government without sending the nation to the ballot box.

"I think that general elections would be a mistake. Israel needs stability. If the prime minister decides to resign, the Knesset can put together [another] government. I believe that we need a broad government that can cope with the challenges ahead."

She also indicated she would run for the party's leadership.

"Kadima needs to choose its leadership in a democratic manner, in primaries, and when the time comes I plan to submit my candidacy," Livni said. "Now is the time to restore the public's trust in the government."

The real test for Livni in the near future will be her ability to rally more supporters to her corner if she intends to make a credible challenge for the leadership of the party.

Meanwhile, ministers Shaul Mofaz, Avi Dichter, and Meir Sheetrit, who consider themselves to be successors to Olmert, are now backing the prime minister.

Sheetrit reiterated yesterday that he intends to run in the primaries for party leadership.

Dichter, who for a while was suspected of being behind the secret plans to undermine Olmert in favor of Livni, said he supports the prime minister and that it is necessary to carry on and correct the failures.

Dichter also said that "this is the time to show strength" and told Olmert that the rumors that he is planning to overthrow him are false. "These are unfounded rumors," Dichter said. "All my life I contributed from within the system and I believe this is the right way to do things."

Mofaz also expressed his support for Olmert. Mofaz and Sheetrit consider themselves candidates for promotion in an Olmert cabinet reshuffle now that the finance minister position has been opened, and perhaps also the foreign ministry.

Olmert called a meeting of the faction yesterday to stymie the rebellion led by the coalition chairman, Yitzhaki.

Yitzhaki is suspected by Olmert loyalists to have coordinated his offensive with Livni.

Olmert had threatened to dismiss Yitzhaki, and offered his loyal supporter, Hanegbi, as his replacement.

Yitzhaki resigned first, and also publicaly called on Olmert to resign because of the severity of the Winograd Committee's interim report, released to the public on Monday.

Earlier he said that "during the faction meeting, after I have stated my opinion that the prime minister should resign, if he decides that he will not resign, I will cease being the faction chair and the chairman of the coalition," he said.

Yitzhaki reiterated his call on Olmert to resign during the start of the faction meeting, and the prime minister told him that he appreciates his candor but he disagrees. Hanegbi was moved to sit next to Olmert in place of Yitzhaki.

Meanwhile, organizers of a protest rally slated to take place in Tel Aviv's Rabin Square tonight said they hoped hundreds of thousands of people would participate. The rally will call for Olmert and Defense Minister Amir Peretz to resign in light of the Winograd report's findings on the Lebanon war. See story, Page 2