In an unexpectedly passionate and largely gracious speech on Wednesday night, Blue and White leader Benny Gantz accepted the “privilege” of being tasked with forming Israel’s next government and sought to dispel the notion that he has no greater chance of success than the incumbent, Benjamin Netanyahu.
Speaking alongside Reuven Rivlin — at the podium at the President’s Residence where for the past decade only Netanyahu has stood and accepted the task of building a coalition — Gantz signaled an immediate concession to the serving prime minister. Whereas Blue and White has hitherto made plain that it would not sit in a coalition with Netanyahu so long as the Likud leader is facing serious corruption allegations, Gantz appealed directly to “Likud… and its chairman Netanyahu” to join the “liberal unity government” he intends to build.
Promising a government “of national reconciliation” that would “unify Israel and the entire Jewish people,” Gantz also reached out to the ultra-Orthodox, a community whose political leadership, Blue and White had made clear until Wednesday, were most unlikely bedfellows in a Gantz-led coalition. Now he spoke to the ultra-Orthodox as “brothers,” listing them along with Israel’s Arab community, its modern-Orthodox Zionists, its young army graduates and its LGBT community, on his demographic register of those he seeks to represent.
Appealing to the Knesset members he must somehow persuade to give him a parliamentary majority, he warned them that Israel’s citizens — who have had no fully functioning government since the Knesset dispersed last December ahead of April’s inconclusive elections, which were then followed by a repeat vote on September 17 — “will not forgive those who put personal interests ahead of the national interest… Those who try to drag Israel to another election will be thrown out of Israel politics,” he declared, “to become extinct.”
Gantz said he would meet right away with the leaders of all elected parties, and work to form a multi-party coalition on the basis of an agreed platform that he believed would be acceptable to “most” of them. Only racists and those who utilize violence would be ineligible, he said.
Unlike many of his rivals, he noted, he was not raised in a political cradle but rather grew up in the IDF, where nobody cares who you voted for because the imperative to safeguard Israel takes precedence over all else. And that, he said, was the vision he was now intent on bringing to the national political leadership.
This was stirring stuff, from a relative political neophyte who looked more at ease than in any previous address since the Blue and White alliance was established eight months ago.
For a little short of 20 minutes, Gantz worked to puncture the skepticism that had surrounded the ceremony — to push aside the widely held assumption that he is now embarking on a Sisyphean task because the necessary votes for a majority government just are not there.
And Sisyphean it may well prove. Twenty-eight days from now, or maybe fewer, the former IDF chief may recognize no alternative but to return “the mandate” that Rivlin bestowed upon him.
But Gantz signaled Wednesday that he will do his utmost to defy the Knesset arithmetic. Netanyahu, in the same place a month ago, exuded near-despondency — “I accept the task you gave me, with the knowledge that I don’t have a better chance at forming a government, but rather, let’s say my inability to do so is a little smaller than that of MK Gantz,” he told Rivlin in brief remarks on September 25. Gantz, by contrast, seemed to be refusing to countenance the idea that he might fail.
His repeated promise to build that “liberal” unity coalition was his confirmation that he is pinning his hopes first and foremost on the fiercely secular Yisrael Beytenu head Avigdor Liberman, whose refusal to sit in a Likud-led government with the ultra-Orthodox parties has now twice denied Netanyahu a majority. His direct invitation to Netanyahu and the Likud was the move of a leader who, now that he is in the political driving seat, can afford to act magnanimously to an intended junior partner. His warm words for Israel’s other sectors were designed to create a climate in which, even if their representatives don’t sit in his government, some of them might be less inclined to vote against it.
“This is our moment to look to the future, to put all other issues aside and do what’s right for Israel,” Gantz declared. “This is the moment to put Israel first.”
In the end, even the masterful Netanyahu could not make the Knesset arithmetic work for him. Vastly experienced, a man who has proved capable of keeping Israel safe and thriving economically for longer than any other prime minister, but also a deeply divisive figure and one now facing possible indictment, Netanyahu simply could not attract the support of more than 55 of the 120 Knesset members elected last month.
On paper, Gantz has even less of a chance, which is precisely why Rivlin turned to him only after Netanyahu had failed. He had only 54 MKs endorse him, and 10 of them, from the mainly Arab Joint List, say they wouldn’t join his government even if he asked them to.
But a third election inside 12 months is a dismal and sobering prospect. As Rivlin said in brief remarks before Gantz’s speech, “a government can be built… There’s no justification for imposing another round of elections.”
If Gantz fails, Israeli law provides another 21-day period in which any Knesset member who can muster a majority could yet become prime minister. It might be only then that the 120 MKs manage to agree on a national leader. Or it might be that even then, the rivalries prove too bitter, the contradictory agendas too incompatible, and Israel will be forced to vote yet again.
But Gantz on Wednesday sought to avoid those eventualities — to preach reconciliation to a watching nation, in the hope that this appeal would have its impact, in turn, on Israel’s elected representatives. A faint hope, perhaps. But then Gantz, as he said on Tuesday, is “always optimistic; it’s a way of life.”
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