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Olmert's numbers plummet


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JERUSALEM (Reuters) -- Sixty-three percent of Israelis want Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to resign in a sharp public rebuke over his handling of the war in Lebanon against Hezbollah, a newspaper poll showed on Friday.

 

Many Israelis view a U.N.-brokered cease-fire backed by Olmert as a failure for Israel because Hezbollah's leadership was left standing and the two Israeli soldiers, whose capture by Hezbollah on July 12 sparked the war, were still in captivity.

 

At least 1,110 people in Lebanon and 157 Israelis were killed in the conflict.

 

The Yedioth Aronoth poll showed for the first time a majority favored Olmert stepping down. Several surveys suggested a big jump in support for the right-wing Likud party and its leader Benjamin Netanyahu after the 34-day war.

 

A poll in the Maariv newspaper showed that only 14 percent of Israelis would vote for Olmert if new elections were held, while 26 percent would back Netanyahu, a former prime minister. The Yedioth poll said 45 percent would support Netanyahu.

 

Olmert, a career politician who lacks the combat credentials of many of his predecessors, has seen his public standing plummet for failing to crush Hezbollah, which rained some 4,000 rockets on northern Israel during the fighting.

 

"Olmert go home," read one sign at a protest by a few hundred army reservists and family members at the grave of former Prime Minister Golda Meir on Friday.

 

The protesters urged Olmert to follow the lead set by Meir, who was forced to resign after the 1973 Middle East war in which Egypt and Syria scored initial successes that caused heavy Israeli casualties.

 

Yedioth, Israel's biggest circulation daily, called Friday's poll results a political "earthquake" for Olmert, whose centrist Kadima party crushed Netanyahu's Likud in general elections in March. A similar poll published a week ago showed 41 percent wanted Olmert to resign.

 

Twenty-two percent of Israelis in the poll deemed Netanyahu "most fit" to be prime minister, compared to 11 percent for Olmert.

 

Olmert also trailed ultranationalist Avigdor Lieberman with 18 percent and senior statesman Shimon Peres with 12 percent, according to Yedioth.

 

Kadima falters

Cameron Brown, of Israel's Herzliya Center, said Olmert's political troubles were compounded by a string of government scandals, including an investigation into whether the Israeli president coerced a female employee to have sex with him.

 

"These politicians are under fire from several different directions at the same time and I think Olmert is clearly having a rough time. The question is will this force him to step down," Brown said.

 

The Maariv poll showed that if elections were held today, Olmert's Kadima party would win just 14 seats in parliament, compared with the 29 it won at the last polls. Likud would win 24, compared with 12.

 

The left-leaning Labour party would win just nine seats.

 

In addition to calling for Olmert's resignation, 74 percent of Israelis in the Yedioth poll said Defense Minister Amir Peretz, the left-leaning Labour party leader, should step down. Fifty-four percent want army chief Dan Halutz to step down.

 

Olmert has put on hold for now his proposal for an Israeli pullout from parts of the occupied West Bank.

 

The proposal was the centerpiece of the government program that won him election in March. But resurgent violence in Gaza, which Israel evacuated last year, plus the Lebanon war appears to have dampened public enthusiasm for territorial withdrawals.

 

The Maariv poll showed 73 percent of Israelis opposed future unilateral withdrawals

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