It’s been 11 years and five elections since the last time someone other than Benjamin Netanyahu was asked to form a government. Presidents, chiefs of staff, judges and central bank governors have come and gone. Babies were born, smartphones upgraded and satellites launched. But the man who walked out of the President’s Residence with the job of forming the government was always the same.
This ritual was cut short Wednesday night by someone who didn’t arouse great hopes when he first entered politics, less than a year ago. He did so in a dignified, conciliatory manner that he has maintained throughout his new career.
Even people who can’t imagine a reasonable life without Netanyahu must admit that Benny Gantz looked prime ministerial (or in American terms, presidential) Wednesday night. He paid due respect to every segment of Israeli society – the ultra-Orthodox, whom he promised to treat like brothers, Arabs, Druze, gays and rightists. After years of incitement, division and a systematic fanning of hatred by the man who, just two days ago, racked up his second failure to form a government, the difference in both language and vision was refreshing.
With the ceremony over, Gantz is entering a less glorious period. Two clear political messages emerged from his speech – a threat to Netanyahu that the people would punish him if he puts his personal and legal interests above the general welfare (i.e., if he continues to insist on going first in a rotation government), and a big wink at his strategic partner, Avigdor Lieberman (who once again promised to establish “a liberal unity government”).
For now, Lieberman is the rock of the prime minister-designate’s political existence. In the coming days, we’ll hear a lot about progress in the coalition negotiations between Gantz’s Kahol Lavan party and Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu. Gantz will also reach out to Labor-Gesher, a partner in any possible government he could form.
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Gantz promised that if necessary, he’ll make tough decisions during the 28 days he has to form a government. What decisions? Perhaps he’ll agree to negotiate with Netanyahu’s Likud party even if it insists on speaking on behalf of all 55 Knesset members in the bloc it heads. But he won’t compromise on being prime minister. Even if he wanted to, his three partners in Kahol Lavan’s leadership – Yair Lapid, Moshe Ya’alon and Gabi Ashkenazi – wouldn’t let him do it.
Kahol Lavan’s leadership isn’t counting on a breakthrough during the next four weeks. The prevailing assumption is that if the cards fall into place, they will do so only after November 20, when Gantz’s mandate to form a government ends, during the 21-day period that will be followed, if no government emerges, by new elections.
A minority government, which will be talked about frequently in the coming weeks, exists on paper only. Its chances of being established are slim to none, and if it is, its term will be short, stormy and bitter. And since the rightist-religious bloc won’t break apart in the next 28 days, there’s only one person Gantz can rely on to give him a government – Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit.