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Top Israeli General Quits

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Defense Minister Amir Peretz came under renewed pressure to resign Wednesday after the Israeli army's chief of staff stepped down in the wake of the flawed Lebanon war.

Israeli army chief Dan Halutz resigned after a series of inquires found that the military mishandled last summer's war, reports . The inquiries found that the army was unprepared for the war, enabling Hezbollah to escape intact.

Three generals have now lost their jobs because of the war.

The sudden departure of Israel's top military official, Lt. Gen. Dan Halutz, delivered another setback to the prime minister, whose popularity has plummeted following last summer's war and a string of political scandals.

In other developments:

  • reports the anti-fraud unit of the Israeli police has opened a criminal investigation into Olmert's role in the sale of one of Israel's largest banks. Prosecutors suspect that Olmert intervened in the sale on behalf of two business associates. The investigation comes at a bad time for Olmert, who is embattled on all fronts.
  • Renewed coalition negotiations between the rival Fatah and Hamas movements hit a new snag on Wednesday, people close to the negotiations said, raising the possibility of a new round of political violence. There was no word on what the specific problem was.
  • A new poll shows that if Palestinian elections were held now, the Fatah party led by moderate President Mahmoud Abbas would oust Hamas from power. The survey shows Fatah winning 40 percent of the vote for parliament, with just 23 percent for Hamas. International sanctions against the Hamas-led government have crippled the Palestinian economy, and a year after its stunning landslide election victory, Hamas has fallen from grace, reports .
  • The Israeli army on Wednesday postponed implementing its latest restriction on Palestinian movement — a ban on riding in cars with Israeli license plates in the West Bank. The decision was announced two days before the restrictions were to go into effect. The army has said some of the suicide bombers who have entered Israel in recent years were transported by citizens — mostly Israeli Arabs whose Israeli license plates allow them to cross army roadblocks without being checked. No reason was given for the postponement. Human rights groups have protested the ban and filed a court challenge to it.
  • Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is not enthusiastic about the Israeli proposal of recognizing a Palestinian state within temporary borders, leaving the final ones to be negotiated later. But Rice did not rule out the idea, which Israelis have floated as a way of energizing the stalled peace process, when she spoke to reporters Tuesday in Kuwait City. Palestinians, however, reject the proposal as a nonstarter, arguing that temporary borders would be too hard to redraw and Israel might end up with large swaths of the West Bank that Palestinians claim is theirs.

    Halutz had previously rejected calls to resign, despite the growing loss of confidence of his political superiors and subordinates in the army.

    "The army is need of a serious shakeup. There were many failures, The war itself was a failure," said former defense minister Moshe Arens.

    With Halutz on his way out, critics quickly clamored for the heads of the country's other wartime leaders, Olmert and Peretz.

    "The war clearly was mismanaged, and when a war is clearly mismanaged, there is no doubt the chief of staff is responsible," said opposition lawmaker Ran Cohen, a former high-ranking military officer. "The responsibility is shared by him, the prime minister and the defense minister, and sooner or later, they, too, will have to leave."

    Neither Olmert nor Peretz publicly addressed the demands for their resignation. Olmert made a routine appearance at parliament, sparring with lawmakers over unrelated domestic issues and promising to appoint a new military chief within days. Peretz said he would begin interviewing candidates for the vacant military post immediately.

    But pressure on Olmert and Peretz is likely to increase ahead of the release of a wide-ranging government inquiry into the war. The investigative panel, focusing on the performance of military and political leaders, is expected to announce its conclusions in the coming weeks.

    "Halutz's step was unavoidable, but he was not the only one responsible for the failures of the war — the government was too," lawmaker Ophir Pines-Paz, a member of Peretz's Labor Party, told Army Radio.

    He stopped short of calling on Olmert and Peretz to resign, saying he wanted to wait for the government panel to reach its conclusions.

    An opinion poll published last week showed Olmert's approval rating at just 14 percent, and his Kadima Party losing if new elections were held.

    "It is not clear whether the prime minister will be able to survive the resignation of chief of staff Halutz and his own political problems," said Ephraim Inbar, a political scientist at Bar-Ilan University near Tel Aviv. "We may see pressure in his own party to replace him. This resignation is definitely the beginning of political turmoil in Israel."

    Peretz's public standing, meanwhile, is equally dismal. The former union leader won the defense portfolio under a coalition deal with Olmert's Kadima Party, despite his scant military experience.

    The war's many flaws only cemented sweeping doubts about his fitness to serve as defense minister, and he now faces multiple challenges to his leadership within his own Labor Party, which is scheduled to hold primaries for chairman in May.

    Both Peretz and Olmert "are in a very shaky position," said political scientist Avraham Diskin of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

    Israel went into the war with a united front against Lebanese Hezbollah guerrillas just hours after they killed three Israeli soldiers and captured two in a July 12 cross-border raid, but that solidarity collapsed after the fighting ended.

    Critics questioned whether Olmert moved too hastily with a full-scale campaign that ended without achieving its declared aims — recovering the captured soldiers and crushing Hezbollah.

    More than 1,200 people were killed on both sides, most in Lebanon, according to U.N., Israeli and Lebanese officials. Israel claims it killed 600 guerrillas, but that number has not been substantiated, and Lebanon says most of its casualties were civilians.

    A total of 159 Israelis were killed, including 39 civilians who died in rocket attacks. Soldiers returning from battle complained of poor planning and shortages of ammunition, food and water.

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