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Huge Tel Aviv rally rampsup pressure on Olmert

As a widely diverse crowd gathers, the prime minister remains defiant.

By ASSOCIATED PRESS
Published May 4, 2007


TEL AVIV, Israel - Tens of thousands of Israelis rallied in a Tel Aviv square after sundown Thursday, demanding that Prime Minister Ehud Olmert resign because of a government inquiry's scathing criticism of his handling of the inconclusive war in Lebanon.

Olmert remained defiant, hoping to beat back a wave of calls for him to step down. A day after his popular foreign minister joined the chorus, Olmert's aides argued that it was not a mortal political blow, but conceded that a large-scale public protest campaign could bring him down.

Turnout on the square in front of Tel Aviv's City Hall appeared to top 100, 000, but police declined to estimate the crowd's size.

The rally drew a cross-section of Israelis: moderates and hard-liners, secular and religious, young and old, a rare mix symbolizing the widespread dissatisfaction with Olmert. They came from all over Israel, including 35 who walked 45 miles from the southern town of Sderot, a frequent target of rockets fired by Palestinians in Gaza.

On a warm, muggy night, the crowd was well-behaved, and hundreds of police stationed around the square had nothing to do. Demonstrators carried signs reading "Elections now" and "Olmert, go home."

Organizers decided not to let politicians speak at the rally, said retired Gen. Uzi Dayan. "There are no politicians here, but this is a political event, " he said.

Some previous political demonstrations in Israel have attracted hundreds of thousands of protesters, and the size of this one was seen as a critical sign of the extent of public anger.

Past protests in the Tel Aviv square have started political earthquakes. A demonstration after Israel's hard-fought 1973 war to turn back invasions by Egypt and Syria led to the resignations of Prime Minister Golda Meir and Defense Minister Moshe Dayan.

Israel went to war against Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon on July 12 after guerrillas crossed into Israel, killing three soldiers and capturing two.

For many Israelis, the 34-day war was a failure because it didn't achieve the two main goals Olmert set: returning the soldiers and crushing Hezbollah, which fired nearly 4, 000 rockets at northern Israel. The conflict killed 158 Israelis and more than 1, 000 Lebanese.

A commission appointed by Olmert to investigate the war accused him of hasty decision-making, failing to consult others and neglecting to assess the chances that his goals could be accomplished. The report covered the first days of the war and the six years that led up to it.