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(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
An effort inside Kadima to overthrow the party's chairman, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, began to snowball Tuesday as more and more MKs said privately that Olmert would soon have no choice but to resign.
Amid reports that Olmert himself does not know whether he will survive, his main Kadima rival, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, is expected to make a statement about Olmert in Wednesday's cabinet meeting that could decide whether the opposition to the prime minister will escalate into full-scale rebellion.
An official close to Olmert said MKs allying themselves with the prime minister had begun discussing ways for Olmert to negotiate an "honorable departure" from his office. The MKs committed themselves to supporting Olmert only in the short-term, to give the prime minister time to leave "respectfully" and ensure that a successor take over who is not one of his rivals.
"Many of the voices of support for the prime minister have an expiration date in the near future," the official said. "For various reasons - mostly for the future of the party - it has been decided that it would be better that Olmert not be forced out by the opposition."
Kadima faction chairman Avigdor Yitzhaki has spoken to nearly all the Kadima MKs since Monday afternoon's release of the Winograd report on the Second Lebanon War. He expressed confidence that nearly the entire faction would support an effort to overthrow Olmert.
"I don't know anyone who wouldn't be happy if he quit, including the people closest to him," Yitzhaki told MKs. "Everyone realizes that [Olmert] staying in power is not good for Kadima or the country. The question is how to convince him to leave."
Yitzhaki called a faction meeting for Thursday morning, before the afternoon's special Knesset session, but Olmert announced later Tuesday that the meeting would be held Wednesday night instead. Yitzhaki said many MKs had told him they did not want to call publicly for Olmert's resignation until a faction meeting with the prime minister.
In an effort to maximize support for toppling Olmert, Yitzhaki has told potential candidates and their supporters that the process of selecting a new leader could be decided at a later stage.
Marina Solodkin and Michael Nudelman were the only Kadima MKs to openly call for Olmert to quit, along with Labor leadership candidates Ami Ayalon, Ophir Paz-Pines and Danny Yatom and Minister-without-Portfolio Eitan Cabel (Labor), who quit the government Tuesday. But Olmert spoke to Nudelman following his announcement and persuaded him to change his mind, and several MKs have made contradicting commitments to Olmert and Yitzhaki.
"Olmert has made fatal decisions, and not only in the Second Lebanon War," Solodkin said. "He needed to quit a long time ago because of all the scandals. After the Winograd report, which is so deep and so clear, there is no doubt that Olmert has to quit, hopefully of his own volition."
Solodkin said she would support either Livni or Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz to replace Olmert, and that she would strongly oppose the potential candidacy of Vice Premier Shimon Peres.
Peres has vigorously denied that he intends to seek the premiership, saying he preferred the presidency.
Mofaz issued thinly veiled criticism of Olmert in a speech Tuesday, in his first indication that he could challenge for the Kadima leadership.
"It's a harsh report, but it must be fully implemented," Mofaz said. "It's the first time such recommendations are being issued on how decisions are made in Israel. Its implementation will decide how the country will be run for many years to come."
Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee chairman Tzahi Hanegbi cautioned against repeating the mistakes of the Likud, with a rebellion against the prime minister.
"People don't need to lie to themselves and hug the prime minister, but rebelling isn't good for Kadima or the nation," he said.
Rather than seesaw back and forth between the Olmert and Yitzhaki camps, some MKs refused to say whether Olmert should resign. They said they remained "neutral" until they had more time to consider the report.
Most of the Kadima women, including Knesset Speaker Dalia Itzik, Knesset House Committee chairwoman Ruhama Avraham, MK Ronit Tirosh and MK Amira Dotan, said they were not making "political comments" at this time and were staying outside the fray surrounding the report.
Other Kadima MKs expressed outrage that Yitzhaki had put them on his list of Olmert opponents. MK Ze'ev Elkin, for instance, said he did not support toppling Olmert at this stage.
"Avigdor [Yitzhaki] better not be using my name," Minister-without-Portfolio Ya'acov Edri said. "Everyone has to say what they have to say to the prime minister to his face and not in some petition drive in the Knesset or on the street."
Yitzhaki also spoke to the heads of the coalition parties on Tuesday. They told him they preferred that Olmert remain prime minister, and that they would do everything possible to avoid elections. The party heads also met with Olmert and spoke to each other to coordinate their political moves.
Olmert's least reliable coalition partner could end up being Labor. The two leading Labor leadership candidates, MK Ami Ayalon and former prime minister Ehud Barak, both had intended to serve as Olmert's defense minister if they won the May 28 Labor primary.
But Ayalon, who said Sunday he was against toppling Olmert, changed his mind after reading the report.
"After reading the report, I realized that I have to say, 'Mister prime minister, you must quit,'" Ayalon said in a speech Tuesday. "'Not only because of what's in the report, but also because you don't have the energy or the trust of the public to lead the rehabilitation of the people.'"
Ayalon called for the establishment of a "national emergency government," leading to speculation that he now wanted to be defense minister under Peres.
Barak has remained silent since the report's release, but he told a group of Labor activists he opposed Cabel's decision to resign.
Cabel said he would try to convince Barak not to join the government, and that he hoped his resignation would cause a chain reaction that would ultimately force Olmert to resign.