JERUSALEM (AP) – Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, under fire for his performance during the Lebanon war, on Thursday dismissed his critics as inexperienced and embittered, but polls showed the public is dissatisfied with him and would vote him out of office if elections were held today.
The polls also indicated that Olmert’s biggest political rival, opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu of the hard-line Likud Party, is poised for a political comeback.
According to the Dialog poll of 507 people published in the Israeli daily Haaretz, 68 percent of Israelis are unhappy with Olmert, compared to 40 percent in a poll on Aug. 11, days before a cease fire was declared in the Israel-Hezbollah war. Just 22 percent of Israelis said they were satisfied with Olmert’s performance, compared to 48 percent in the previous poll.
The same poll found that if an election were held today, Netanyahu’s Likud would double its strength to 24 of 120 parliament seats, compared to just 16 for Olmert’s centrist Kadima Party, which currently holds 29 seats.
Such an outcome, with Likud emerging as Israel’s largest party, could enable Netanyahu to form a government and become prime minister. Elections are not scheduled until 2010, but in a sign of political instability, no Israeli government has completed its four-year term in the past decade.
Olmert’s popularity plummeted after he waged a fierce war against Hezbollah, but failed to crush the Lebanese guerrilla group. The fighting was triggered by Hezbollah’s capture of two Israeli soldiers in a cross-border raid.
But after nearly 4,000 rockets were fired at Israel and more than 150 Israelis were killed, along with some 850 Lebanese, the war came to an end without a clear victor. The outcome infuriated many Israelis, including reserve soldiers, many of whom called for an official state inquiry into the decision-making in the war.
Defense Minister Amir Peretz and his moderate Labor Party also lost popularity as a result of the war. Labor would drop by four seats, to 15, according to the Dialog poll. Peretz was inexperienced in military matters when Olmert named him defense minister earlier this year, largely to avoid giving the former union leader the finance portfolio.
The biggest winner would be hardliner Avigdor Lieberman, head of the Yisrael Beiteinu faction, which would win 18 seats, up from 11. The poll’s error margin was 4.8 percentage points.
A second poll published in the Israeli daily Yediot Ahronot found that 27 percent of Israelis thought Netanyahu would be the most appropriate prime minister, while just 7 percent felt that way about Olmert. The Dahaf poll of 499 people had an error margin of 4.5 percentage points.
Cabinet minister Shaul Mofaz, a member of Kadima and a former defense minister, has been one of the most outspoken critics, saying the prime minister mishandled the war, causing Israel to miss out on a clear-cut victory. Moshe Yaalon, a former army chief, has also been openly critical of Olmert. But the prime minister has dismissed their criticism, saying their comments are the result of their own bitter feelings for not being more successful in politics. Still, Olmert used a series of interviews with Israeli newspapers ahead of the Jewish New Year, which begins Friday, to insist the army won the war in Lebanon.
“I have no doubt we won the war,” Olmert told the Maariv daily, calling his critics “harbingers of doom.” Olmert was evasive about whether Hezbollah guerrilla chief Hassan Nasrallah is still in Israel’s crosshairs. Asked by the daily Maariv whether Nasrallah is still a target for assassination, Olmert said: “There is no reason for me to notify Nasrallah through the media how we will act. We will not give him advance notice. He is holding a victory march because he has lost.”
Meanwhile, the Israeli army killed five Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, three of them suspected militants who were operating a rocket launcher that they had used earlier in the day to fire projectiles at the Israeli town of Sderot, the army said. The three men were killed by an artillery shell in the northern Gaza town of Beit Lahiya, the army said.
Family members said the three men were not militants and were in the field caring for their sheep when the army fired artillery at them.
In southern Gaza, the Israeli army killed a 28-year-old militant and a 37-year-old woman in an incursion into the Rafah area, Palestinian officials said. During the raid, Israeli artillery hit also hit a home, wounding four family members, one of them seriously, the officials said.
The army said troops were conducting arrests on the outskirts of Rafah, and that several wanted people were taken into custody. Troops killed a Palestinian gunman during a firefight, the army said. It had no comment on the death of the woman.