Israeli government under pressure after military chief resigns

RAMALLAH — The Israeli government is reeling after Tuesday’s resignation of Israeli army chief Dan Halutz with calls growing for Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Defence Minister Amir Peretz also to step down.

Olmert, already facing a criminal investigation for corruption, did not address criticism at a routine parliamentary session Wednesday nor the resignation of Halutz except to promise to appoint another chief-of-staff in the coming days.

Halutz resigned after numerous inquests into Israel’s failed war in Lebanon last summer had found widespread problems in the army’s performance. Halutz was criticised in Israel for overreliance on airpower and only belatedly sending in ground troops that were often ill-equipped.

“I have accomplished the objective that was set for me at the end of the Lebanon war, which was to study and learn the lessons from what transpired,” wrote Halutz in his letter of resignation.

“I consider under the conditions it is my duty to resign my office immediately.”

For his part, Peretz called the resignation “premature” and voiced regret that the former army chief would not help restructure the army.

Opposition lawmakers were quick to pounce, however.

“The war clearly was mismanaged, and when a war is clearly mismanaged, there is no doubt the chief-of-staff is responsible,” said Ran Cohen, of the left-wing Meretz-Yahad Party, a former high-ranking military officer. “The responsibility is shared by him, the prime minister and the defence minister, and sooner or later, they, too, will have to leave.”

Halutz resigned before the findings of the investigation into army’s performance have been made public. The investigation is looking into the performance of senior military and political leaders, and Olmert and Peretz are likely to face increasing pressure in the days ahead.

Even from within the ruling coalition voices of dissent are being heard.

“Halutz’s step was unavoidable, but he was not the only one responsible for the failures of the war — the government was too,” lawmaker Ophir Pines-Paz, a member of Peretz’s Labour Party, told Israel army radio.

He stopped short of calling on Olmert and Peretz to resign, saying he wanted to wait for the government panel to reach its conclusions.

An opinion poll published last week showed Olmert’s approval rating at just 14 per cent, and his Kadima Party losing if new elections were held now.

 

Israel went into the war with a united front after Lebanese Hizbollah killed three Israeli soldiers and captured two in a July 12 cross-border raid, but that solidarity collapsed after the fighting ended.

A total of more than 1,200 people were killed in the monthlong war, with over 1,000 of those in Lebanon, according to UN figures. Israel claims it killed 600 fighters, but that number has not been substantiated, and Lebanon says most of its casualties were civilians.

A total of 159 Israelis were killed, including 39 civilians who died in rocket attacks.

Hizbollah legislator Hussein Haj Hassan told the Associated Press that Halutz’s resignation “is the result of the defeat of the Israeli enemy in Lebanon”.

 

Unity talks

 

On the Palestinian side, meanwhile, a planned session of the parliament had to be cancelled yesterday after a dozen Hamas lawmakers went on a trip to Indonesia. Deputy Speaker Ahmed Bahar, also Hamas, decided not enough legislators would be present for quorum.

Forty-one Palestinian legislators languish in Israeli prisons, 37 of them from Hamas. The many Hamas legislators in prison has meant that despite losing parliamentary elections overwhelmingly to Hamas, Fateh has in effect had parity in parliament, though the council has not met in four months.

International sanctions and factional differences between Fateh and Hamas have rendered the Palestinian Authority virtually paralysed in the past nine months.

But a five-month-old public sector strike formally ended last week amid hopes that the months long negotiations between the two factions to establish a unity government might finally succeed.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is scheduled to go to Damascus on Saturday for talks with Syrian President Bashar Assad. The Palestinian press has been full of rumours that he will meet exiled Hamas leader Khaled Mishaal in the Syrian capital in order to finalise a unity government agreement between Fateh and Hamas.

But yesterday, an official close to Abbas denied that any such meeting had been planned.

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