Prime Minister Ehud Olmert barely uttered a word of his speech at a Rosh Hashana toast for Kadima activists on Wednesday before reserve soldiers and bereaved parents started heckling him and calling upon him to resign.
Security guards struggled to reach the hecklers, who shouted throughout the prime minister's speech. Fights broke out at the Tel Aviv Fairgrounds between the protesters and Kadima activists.
Standing in front of a stage set up for television cameras in the middle of the hall, the hecklers unveiled flags with symbols of elite IDF units and shouted, "Olmert go home" and "Where are the kidnapped soldiers?" One protester even called the prime minister a murderer.
Olmert addressed the protesters in his speech, calling upon them to stop attacking Chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Dan Halutz and to leave the army outside the political battlefield.
"It is permitted to protest and provoke, but the majority of the people here think differently than you do," he told the hecklers. "I know that there are people who are angry and disappointed. I am sure the majority of the people of Israel agree with our path and believe that Israel won the war."
Olmert's associates accused the protesters of being part of a right-wing conspiracy against the prime minister. They noted that the reservist movement is advised by Spin, the same public relations firm that ran the settlers' campaign against disengagement.
"We know who sent them and who is advising them," an Olmert associate said. "The unruly bullying and disgusting heckling of the prime minister reveals the true face and the blatantly political intentions of the people calling upon him to quit. Whoever calls the prime minister a murderer loses his legitimacy and becomes part of the extremist fringes of Israeli society."
The reservists fought back, rejecting ties with the extreme right and accusing Olmert of trying to mislead the public with personal attacks on them instead of addressing their charges about his handling of the war in Lebanon.
"The prime minister is under pressure," said Assaf Levine, a partner in Spin and a strategist for the reservists. "He is doing everything to avoid a state commission of inquiry and prevent the truth from coming out. He started by forming fake inquiry committees and now these wild charges."
Dozens of reservists and protesters demonstrated in the exit from the Tel Aviv Fairgrounds holding torches and banners calling for Olmert, Defense Minister Amir Peretz and Halutz to resign.
Kadima activists formerly active in the Likud suggested that the heckling could end up helping Olmert the way hecklers in the Likud central committee boosted former prime minister Ariel Sharon. Some even questioned whether Olmert might have staged the heckling to aid his own popularity in the general public. They noted that security was less vigilant at the fairgrounds than it normally is at events attended by the prime minister.
A Kadima spokesman said 3,400 Kadima supporters attended the event. But busloads of elderly Russian immigrants, who came from Pardess Hanna and said they knew little about Kadima, filled a section of the hall and left during Olmert's speech because their bus was leaving.
Prior to the uproar, Alfei Menashe Mayor Eliezer Hisdai addressed the crowd and announced that he had joined Kadima. Hisdai belonged to the Likud and ran on its list for the Knesset. He campaigned against the Gaza Strip withdrawal and opposed Olmert's West Bank realignment plan.
"I hope I found my home in Kadima," Hisdai said. "I don't know too many people who would go to war the way the prime minister did. When he abandoned the realignment plan, I saw that the party is able to face reality and change and I wanted to be a part of it."
Kadima faction chairman Avigdor Yitzhaki used a speech at the event to deny rumors that he intends to defect to the Likud and try to overthrow Olmert.
"We are not idiots," Yitzhaki told the crowd. "We left the Likud because we didn't want to be a part of it and we didn't want Binyamin Netanyahu to be prime minister. There is no chance that we will return to the Likud and there is no chance that we will allow Binyamin Netanyahu to become prime minister."