Olmert's Ratings Fall After Lebanon War

The Associated Press
Thursday, September 21, 2006; 4:06 PM

JERUSALEM -- Israelis would vote Ehud Olmert out of office if elections were held now, polls indicated Thursday, as the defiant prime minister defended his performance in the Lebanon war and lashed out at his critics.

In newspaper and TV interviews marking the Jewish New Year, Olmert said he had no doubt Israel won this summer's war against Hezbollah _ even though the army was unable to stop rocket attacks on Israel during 34 days of fighting and failed to win the release of two soldiers captured by the Lebanese guerrillas.

Hezbollah has also claimed victory and planned a large rally Friday in Beirut, although it was unclear whether its chief, Hassan Nasrallah, would attend, in what would be his first public appearance since the start of the war.

Olmert was evasive when asked whether Nasrallah remained a target for assassination. However, army chief Lt. Gen. Dan Halutz suggested Israel was no longer hunting Nasrallah, saying his fate "won't depend on us."

In the Gaza Strip, five Palestinians were killed by army fire _ three alleged members of a rocket squad, a gunman and a 37-year-old woman.

Two polls published Thursday indicted Olmert was rapidly losing support and archrival Benjamin Netanyahu, leader of the hawkish Likud, was poised for a comeback.

A survey by the Dialog polling company, published in the Haaretz newspaper, showed 68 percent of Israelis were unhappy with Olmert, compared with 40 percent on Aug. 1, midway through the war. Just 22 percent were satisfied with his performance, compared with 48 percent in the previous poll.

The survey of 507 people had a margin of error of plus or minus 4.8 percentage points.

If an election were held today, Likud would double its strength, winning 24 of 120 parliament seats _ making it the largest party and Netanyahu the possible premier _ while Olmert's centrist Kadima would fall from 29 to 16 seats, according to the poll. Elections are not scheduled until 2010, but no Israeli government in the past decade has completed its four-year term.

In a survey in the Yediot Ahronot daily, 27 percent said Netanyahu was most suited to be prime minister, compared to just 7 percent who chose Olmert. The Dahaf poll of 499 people had an error margin of plus or minus 4.5 percentage points.

After winning March elections, Olmert set out with confidence, saying he would draw Israel's final borders by unilaterally pulling out of much of the West Bank. However, his aides have acknowledged that the Lebanon war squashed that plan and stripped Olmert's government of its central mission.

Olmert, Halutz and Defense Minister Amir Peretz have been criticized for their wartime performance. Opponents say they were indecisive and confused, defined unachievable war goals _ such as crushing Hezbollah _ and that they negotiated a bad cease-fire deal.

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