TEL AVIV — Five months ago, the leaders of the centrist Blue and White party stood on stage and prematurely declared victory, based on exit poll results.
Early on Wednesday morning, with polling results showing even more optimistic numbers for their bid to take the reins of the country, the party’s quartet of leaders laid out a path toward building a coalition while cautiously urging supporters to patiently wait for the final election outcome.
“Of course we will wait for the real results. But as it looks now, we fulfilled the mission. And more importantly, we did it according to our way,” party leader and former army general Benny Gantz told some 200 party faithful in Tel Aviv.
Benjamin Netanyahu, the incumbent prime minister, on the other hand, failed to fulfill his mission, Gantz added, again stressing that he was assuming the exit polls were close to the final results.
“We proved that the idea called Blue and White, an initiative that we started a few months ago, is a success, big time, and it’s here to stay,” he said to loud cheers at Tel Aviv’s Hangar 11 venue.
Gantz wasted little time in reaching out to potential allies, including reportedly calling Joint List leader Ayman Odeh. Exit polls showed the alliance of Arab factions gaining between 13 and 15 seats in the election.
Gantz did not mention Odeh in his speech but said he had already spoken to Labor chairman Amir Peretz and the head of the left-wing Democratic Union, Nitzan Horowitz, in a bid to start future coalition negotiations.
“I will also speak to [the head of the hawkish Yisrael Beytenu party Avigdor] Liberman, I intend to speak to everyone,” he said. “Starting tonight, we will start work on building a broad national unity government.”
He also did not mention Netanyahu and his Likud party, but he and his partners have during the campaign said they seek a national government with the right-wing party, so long as Netanyahu no longer leads it.
Before Gantz took the stage at 2:15 a.m., a group of about 10 young Blue and White supporters greeted him with chants declaring him the next prime minister.
But during his remarks, Gantz repeatedly cautioned that patience was needed in the coming days and weeks, acknowledging that the expected outcome of Tuesday’s election does not appear to offer an easy path for a ruling coalition.
“According to the results that we have now, it seems that for the second time the people have given us a mandate,” he said.
“We promised throughout the campaign, and I hereby commit more than ever that tonight begins the path on the way to repair Israeli society,” he said.
Exit polls following Tuesday’s rerun election — the second in five months — showed Blue and White slightly ahead of Likud, but with neither party enjoying a clear path to a coalition without reaching across the aisle.
The next several weeks are expected to feature a wealth of coalition wrangling, as parties attempt to jockey to form a government.
In April, Blue and White managed to nearly tie Likud, but Netanyahu, who has been prime minister for 10 years, was given first chance to form a government and after he failed, the mandate never passed to Gantz, with Likud instead engineering new elections.
President Reuven Rivlin, who decides on whom to task with forming a government, has promised to do what he can to avoid a third round of voting.
Gantz, one of three former IDF chiefs of staff at the top of Blue and White, said he was more concerned about the many divisions in Israeli society than Israel’s manifold security challenges.
“Before and above politics, we are one people,” he said. The schisms and the divisions are over,” he vowed.
Blue and White No. 2 Yair Lapid, speaking before Gantz, said the results showed that “The citizens of Israel proved today they were better than their politicians and their politics…
“The extremists are out, fear and hatred are out, incitement and division is out. Today Israeli values returned to the center stage of Israeli politics,” he said.
Lapid also counseled “patience,” noting that coalition negotiations are “sensitive and complicated” and will take place behind closed doors.
Moshe Ya’alon and Gabi Ashkenazi, numbers three and four on the Blue and White slate, respectively, also urged patience, avoiding the impression that they consider the projected election results a clear-cut victory.
The quartet’s cautiousness appears to be a result of a victory speech Gantz delivered shortly after the polls closed on April 9 election, which was mocked by many as premature.
At the time, Gantz, basing himself on early exit polls, declared himself Israel’s next prime minister and promised to “form a wide coalition that represents the whole of Israel.”