Key Israeli Leader Raises Pressure On PM

Foreign minister Tzipi Livni and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert at a cabinet meeting, May 2, 2007.
Israel's popular foreign minister on Wednesday called on Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to step down, the highest-ranking official to seek his resignation following a harsh report criticizing his handling of last year's war in Lebanon.

"I told him that resignation would be the right thing for him to do," said Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, the most popular politician in Olmert's Kadima Party and the best placed to succeed him as party leader — and possibly as prime minister.

Livni is the most senior official to join a flood of calls for Olmert's resignation, reports CBS News correspondent Robert Berger.

In other developments:

  • In an unprecedented praise of developments in Israel, the militant Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah said Wednesday he "respects" his enemy's verdict of failure in last summer's war with his guerrillas in Lebanon. "It is worthy of respect that an investigative commission appointed by Olmert condemns him," he told an audience at the opening of a book fair in a south Beirut neighborhood complex rebuilt after it had been leveled by Israeli warplanes during the summer fighting.
  • A fugitive Arab Israeli lawmaker is suspected of treason and espionage for aiding Hezbollah guerrillas during last summer's war in Lebanon, police disclosed Wednesday, saying the crimes could be punishable by death. Azmi Bishara, who recently left the country under mysterious circumstances, will be arrested immediately if he returns to Israel, police said. Bishara, who resigned last month, has denied all the allegations against him and accused police of conducting a witch hunt.
  • Berger reports the U.S. has unveiled a new plan aimed at reviving the Mideast peace process. The Bush administration has drawn up an eight-month timetable, setting dates for Israel and the Palestinians to take practical steps toward building confidence. Expectations are low, however, because Mideast timetables are rarely, if ever, on time.
  • Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh has sent a series of letters to the kidnappers of a captured British journalist demanding his release, a top aide said Wednesday. Ahmed Youssef, an adviser to Haniyeh, said the letters have sought to "clarify to these people that this issue doesn't serve the interest of our people." The comments confirmed that negotiations are under way to win the release of British Broadcasting Corp. correspondent Alan Johnston, who was kidnapped on March 12.

    Livni said she would remain in government "to ensure that improvements are carried out." Livni, Olmert's top rival in the party, said she believed Kadima could replace Olmert without holding new elections.

    Under Israel's parliamentary system, Kadima could change leaders without losing power. Livni said when Kadima holds its party primary, she would run for the leadership. No primary date has been set.

    "It's not a personal matter between me and the prime minister — this issue is more important than both of us," Livni said.

    Olmert called an emergency meeting of his Cabinet Wednesday in a feverish attempt to hold on to power, urging his rivals to "slow down" before trying to reap political capital from a scathing report on his handling of last year's war against Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon.

    This week's report has fueled a growing chorus of calls for Olmert's resignation, including from members of his coalition government.

    The 34-day war has been widely perceived as a failure. Monday's report said Olmert bore ultimate responsibility, accusing him of poor judgment, hasty decision making and lack of vision.

    A defiant Olmert opened the special Cabinet session by hinting that reports of his political demise were premature. "To those who are eager to take advantage of this report to reap certain political advantages, I suggest 'slow down,'" he said in comments broadcast on Israeli media.

    Israel Radio has reported that Defense Minister Amir Peretz, also the target of fierce criticism over Israel's prosecution of the Lebanon war, may decide to resign his post as early as Wednesday.

    Two new polls published in Israeli newspapers Wednesday said some two-thirds of Israelis want Olmert to resign immediately. The surveys indicated that the hawkish former prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu of the opposition Likud Party, would likely win handily if new elections were held.