Never mind the rally, Olmert aims to win over Winograd

PM's aides downplay 'irrelevant' rally.

The key to Prime Minister Ehud Olmert remaining in power lies not with the politicians in his party and coalition or the masses in Kikar Rabin, but with the five members of the Winograd Committee, sources close to Olmert said Thursday. Olmert's associates downplayed the rally, saying it was "irrelevant" as long as there was no chance of the Knesset unseating the prime minister. They said the unity among Right and Left in the square was meaningless if the two sides could not agree on an alternative to Olmert. "We have already known what the public thought for a long time because of the polls," a source close to Olmert said. "It doesn't matter how many people came to the square, because decisions are made in the Knesset and not in demonstrations, because we are not a banana republic. And anyway, public opinion will soon flip in our favor." Olmert's strategy over the next few months, the source said, will be to implement all recommendations in the interim Winograd Report and make uncontroversial cabinet appointments in an effort to persuade the Winograd Committee to allow him to remain in office after the final report is released in August. The prime minister has been quoted as saying that if the committee called upon him to quit in the final report, he would resign immediately. Sources close to the committee have admitted that they did not call for Olmert to quit in the interim report because they wanted to allow him to face the reality of their recommendations on his own, but they have hinted that he would not be so lucky next time. Olmert's aides expressed confidence that attempts to overthrow the prime minister were over until the final report comes out. They said Olmert had made no final decision on when or whether to fire Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, who on Wednesday publicly called on him to resign, while avoiding calls to resign herself. Olmert's advisers remain divided over whether to make the Foreign Ministry part of an expected cabinet reshuffle or to try to stifle Livni's political aspirations by keeping her in office. During Thursday's Knesset session, Olmert and Livni did not speak or make eye contact, despite their sitting alongside one another. Livni told reporters in the Knesset cafeteria that she "hadn't closed the door on [her] quitting," but said, "Quitting is an act of protest and not necessarily an act of leadership." Livni praised herself for taking steps that former generals who share her opinion did not have the courage to take. Defense Minister Amir Peretz has also not made a final decision on whether to resign. His associates said he would be influenced by the calls to quit in Kikar Rabin. Peretz's political allies, Education Minister Yuli Tamir and Deputy Defense Minister Ephraim Sneh, have also hinted recently that they might quit soon. Peretz's ally in the Knesset, MK Shelly Yacimovich, told Israel Radio she had urged him to resign because "sometimes you have to do things because they are right" and to "separate himself from the shameful behavior of the other politicians." Yacimovich said she would not support Peretz in the May 28 Labor primary if he did not quit. Labor leadership candidates Ami Ayalon, Ophir Paz-Pines and Danny Yatom have ruled out joining an Olmert-led government, while Peretz and former prime minister Ehud Barak have not clarified their position on the matter. "There is no possible way I'd sit in an Olmert government," Ayalon told The Jerusalem Post at the demonstration. "I'll do everything possible to prevent Labor from sitting together with Olmert. I don't think he'll survive the final report. His only goal is to keep his chair, and this leadership will lead us nowhere." Barak will likely be forced to give his opinion on whether Olmert should resign and whether he would join his cabinet when the Labor central committee convenes on May 13. Labor sources said Barak had met with three Labor ministers who support his candidacy and they promised they would resign their posts if he requested they do so. Influential United Kibbutz Movement head Ze'ev Shore on Thursday called on the Labor candidates to announce that they would keep Labor in the government. If Labor left the government, Olmert would be left with a minority coalition of 59 MKs and might have to initiate early elections, he said. During an emergency session of the Knesset Thursday, opposition leader and Likud chairman Binyamin Netanyahu blasted the Olmert government for its handling of the Second Lebanon War. "Those who failed at war cannot be those who correct the failures," he said. Netanyahu said Israel's "values and spirit are its strength," and that during the war, the Israeli people had supported the decision to go to war and had believed in their leaders' ability to protect them. But the public had since lost its faith in its leaders, who did not fulfill their obligations, he said, and there was a sense among the public that the system was not functioning properly. As such, Netanyahu added, Israel must use its power as a democratic state to listen to what the people want - namely, a government that will protect its citizens from the kinds of failures highlighted in the interim Winograd Report. At the opening of the meeting, Knesset Speaker Dalia Itzik emphasized that the vast majority of the government had supported the decision to go to war last summer, including herself. The report, which was released on Monday, leveled damning criticism at the upper political and military echelons, particularly at Olmert, Peretz and former chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. (res.) Dan Halutz. Calls for the government's resignation have abounded since the report's publication. Prior to the Knesset session, Netanyahu expressed similar sentiments at the Likud faction meeting, saying the current government "has lost the trust of the public, if it had any to begin with. Therefore, we need to return to the public so it can speak for itself." Likud faction chairman Gideon Sa'ar said at the Likud meeting that the government "exists by law, but has lost its moral mandate. The only solution is the resignation of the government and new elections." During the Knesset session, some of the most vocal criticism of Olmert came from within the coalition itself. Yatom called on Labor's ministers to follow MK Eitan Cabel's example and resign. He said the government had failed and it was time to let the people elect new leaders. At the end of the session, Vice Premier Shimon Peres defended the government, stressing that it was its duty to remain in office and implement the Winograd Report's recommendations. Sa'ar criticized Peretz for not attending the special Knesset session, saying it was "evidence" of Peretz's unwillingness to be held accountable. Meretz faction chairwoman Zehava Gal-On called out during the session, "Where, oh where is the defense minister?" Amir Mizroch and Herb Keinon contributed to this report.