Israel's foreign minister on Wednesday called on Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to resign, positioning herself as a possible replacement and severely undercutting his efforts to stem the tide that's turned against him since a government panel harshly reproached his handling of last year's Lebanon war.
The embattled Olmert insisted he would stay on to shepherd through the recommendations the panel made.
Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, who had remained conspicuously silent since the report came out Monday, met with Olmert on Wednesday afternoon to drop her political bombshell.
"I told him that resignation would be the right thing for him to do," Livni told reporters, shortly after her meeting with Olmert.
While asserting she wasn't working to unseat Olmert, the popular Livni said she considered herself a candidate to replace him as head of the ruling Kadima Party, and as such, as Israel's leader. Livni said she did not want to see the government dissolved and early elections called, because of the destabilizing effect that would have.
Under Israel's parliamentary system, Kadima could switch its leader without losing power, because the prime minister is not directly elected and usually comes from parliament's largest bloc.
Livni _ a relative political newcomer and a former officer in the Mossad spy agency _ is Kadima's most popular politician and might be the party's best hope of retaining power. Opinion polls have shown that the hardline former prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu of the opposition Likud Party, would win if new elections are held.
"I haven't worked and am not working to topple the prime minister. That's a decision he'll have to make," she said. "It's not a personal matter between me and the prime minister _ this issue is more important than both of us."
Livni said she would not step down as foreign minister "to ensure that improvements are carried out." But under the changed circumstances, it is unclear how she and Olmert would be able to continue working together.
In another stunning defection Wednesday, the chairman of the parliamentary coalition, Avigdor Yitzhaki of Kadima, called on Olmert to resign, then quit in protest after he didn't.
The 34-day war against Hezbollah guerrillas has been widely perceived as a failure. Monday's report said Olmert bore ultimate responsibility, accusing him of poor judgment, hasty decision-making and shortsightedness.
Israel launched its military campaign on July 12, hours after Lebanese Hezbollah guerrillas killed three soldiers and captured two in a cross-border raid. Nearly 4,000 Hezbollah rockets bombarded northern Israel during the war, and 158 Israelis were killed, but Israel signed an Aug. 14 cease-fire without achieving either of the objectives Olmert had declared _ recovering the two soldiers and crushing Hezbollah.
More than 1,000 Lebanese civilians and combatants also died in the war, according to Lebanese officials.
Since the report was issued, Olmert has been scrambling to hold his coalition together. One minister from the Labor Party, Olmert's main coalition partner, quit on Tuesday, and two members of Kadima, including Yitzhaki, have demanded he quit.
At an emergency Kadima meeting called after Livni's news conference, Olmert signaled he intended to soldier on.
"I intend to implement the recommendations of the (war) report down to the last detail," spokesman Jacob Galanti quoted him as saying.
Olmert opened a special Cabinet session earlier Wednesday 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.
Olmert also told ministers that his government would best remedy the mistakes it made. The Cabinet approved a committee to implement the war probe's recommendations for improved decision-making and crisis management.
But by calling on him to resign, Livni slapped down a formidable political challenge.
Although Kadima could replace Olmert without elections, front-runner Livni could encounter difficulty in keeping the current coalition together. The ultra-Orthodox Shas party would have trouble serving under a woman, while the nationalist Yisrael Beiteinu Party may be wary of cooperating with Livni, who is more dovish than Olmert.
Within Kadima, there were glimmers of public support for the embattled Olmert.
"I think the prime minister should not resign," said Meir Sheetrit, a Cabinet minister. "If the prime minister resigns, Kadima is liable to fall apart, that's exactly the recipe for destroying Kadima."
The party was formed by Ariel Sharon after he despaired of persuading his long-time Likud faction of making further territorial concessions. The party was based largely on Sharon's popularity, and it has slumped badly in the polls after last summer's war. Sharon suffered a stroke in January 2006 and remains in a coma.
Two new surveys published in Israeli newspapers Wednesday showed two-thirds of Israelis want Olmert to quit 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.
Meanwhile, confidants of Defense Minister Amir Peretz said he was mulling whether to hold on to his job. They spoke on condition of anonymity because no decision has been made, and there was no confirmation from his spokesmen.
The war probe also criticized Peretz's performance, and his popular support has dropped precipitously, to the point that four people will be challenging his leadership of the Labor Party in May 28 primaries.
Peretz's expected ouster could be followed by a Labor pullout from the current coalition government, something that could cause the government to fall.