"I am not prepared to give in to this hysteria," PM tells Kadima party members.
By TOVAH LAZAROFF
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert pledged to serve the full four years of his term, even as he told party members Thursday night in Petah Tikva: "I'm not a popular prime minister."
"Reporters have reminded the public that I am unpopular," he said. "Our friends in the opposition led by [Likud chairman Binyamin] Netanyahu do not miss an opportunity to point out that I am unpopular. Even within my own party there are those who deal with the question of my unpopularity. I think they are right. I am, indeed, an unpopular prime minister."
While his speech was interrupted by applause and chants of "Ehud, king of Israel," Olmert acknowledged the undercurrent of uncertainty that had gripped his party in the past few days.
Analysis: Can the Winograd Committee press Olmert to resign?
"I recognize the concern in this room," he said. "I understand it and I know that I have to take it seriously."
As a veteran politician, Olmert said, he understood very well the choices he could have made to change the situation. He said he could have destroyed the budget to give money to the unions and the local authorities. Had he heeded the advice of former generals and war pundits, and risked the lives of soldiers by starting a ground campaign in the first week of the war in Lebanon, he would have a better approval rating, he said. The same is true, he added, had he refrained from gaining military advantages by pushing forward on the ground in the last week of the war.
Olmert said he would also rate higher in the polls if he had spent more time fighting corruption allegations against him rather than working to better the economy, fighting threats from Hizbullah, Hamas and Iran, and working for the release of the three captive soldiers.
Recent polls have given Olmert less than a 10 percent popularity rating.
If the price he would have had to pay for personal success was a country that was impoverished and less secure, then "I prefer to remain unpopular," Olmert said.
He said in spite of the fact that he lived at a time where lies seemed to spring forth from lies, he believed that eventually the truth regarding his efforts on behalf of the country would emerge.
Olmert said since his election 10 months ago, poverty and unemployment had decreased. Security had also improved because the Lebanese army and international forces had replaced Hizbullah in southern Lebanon along Israel's northern border, he added.
Olmert cautioned against a rush to judgment regarding the findings of the Winograd Committee, which he said still had many documents to sift through.
"Why, do people always believe the worst?" he asked. "I am not willing to waste my time apologizing to those who do."
Olmert asked those in the room what they preferred, a prime minister who worried about ratings, or one who worked.
"My true place of work is the nation of Israel," he said. "It is for this I was chosen for a four-year term. Just so there is no mistake, I work for you and I intend to continue to do so for a very long time."
For close to three hours prior to Olmert's speech, party members, ministers and lawmakers gave rousing speeches about the need for party unity.
They dismissed rumors that the party had lost faith in Olmert or that a group of 10 MKs was considering breaking away to join the Likud and help Netanyahu take over the government by creating an alternative coalition of 61 MKs.
Lashing out at Netanyahu, Interior Minister Roni Bar-On, a former Likud member, said: "I call on the people of Israel to say, 'Enough with the "kombinot" [shady deals] of Bibi.'" Then making a pun out of that Hebrew word and Netanyahu's last name, he added, "Enough with kom-Bibi."
Bar-On also criticized the Winograd Committee for heralding an upcoming negative report in April without actually releasing the results, thereby opening a month-long period of speculation regarding whether the results would be dire enough to push Olmert out of office.
"Have people lost their minds, their sense of responsibility?" he asked.
Since the initial release of information by the committee on Tuesday, rumors have spread that other top leaders within the party, including Tzipi Livni, Avi Dichter, Shaul Mofaz and Meir Sheetrit, could replace Olmert.
By law, should Olmert resign, Livni would become prime minister. The party could then rally around her or choose to hold primaries.
On Thursday night, however, all four were present to show their support for Olmert and to pledge that the party would remain united.
As evidenced by the last election, Livni said, the Likud no longer represented the public, and that was why she and many others had left the Likud to join Kadima some 16 months ago, when former prime minister Ariel Sharon was their leader.
She said the party was created to preserve the Jewish and democratic nature of the state, to improve socioeconomic conditions in Israel and to advance a diplomatic solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that involved two nations for two people.
Making reference to the pelting rain outside the building, Livni, who just returned from a trip to the United States, said: "There is a storm outside, and Kadima is in the midst of the storm."
To those who anticipate a split in the party, she said, "We have to give a short answer: we are staying together."
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