Before the talks between the new Blue and White Party's leaders Benny Gantz and Yair Lapid intensified on Wednesday, it looked like the election was over.
The three public figures pushing for the bloc had seemingly given up. Former prime minister Ehud Barak was eulogizing the party on Twitter, former IDF chief of staff Gabi Ashkenazi leaked that he was sitting this election out, and Hatnua head Tzipi Livni tearfully quit politics.
Without the bloc, Netanyahu would have had a relatively easy time winning the April 9 election, even if the leaks from his expected indictment pending a hearing would be especially harsh.
The only way to have beaten Netanyahu in that scenario was for several medium and small parties, including two Arab lists, to win the 61 seats necessary to block him from forming a government and then ensure that none of them would be enticed by portfolios. That scenario, which was promoted by former prime minister Ehud Olmert, would have been a longshot.
Now, that is no longer necessary. With three former IDF chiefs of staff offering their military experience, Lapid and Histadrut chief Avi Nissenkorn contributing their organizational abilities, and all of them presenting a clean record, the threat to Netanyahu has never been more serious.
When Ashkenazi joked that President Reuven Rivlin would prefer to grant his party leaders the right to form the government and not Netanyahu, Rivlin’s office was quick to issue a denial.
“Beit Hanasi would like to distance itself from the discussions regarding the president’s decisions after the results of the elections,” the statement said. “The president will act according to the election results and the consultations he will hold, just as every president over the years has done.”
By law, Rivlin may ask any MK to form a government. It doesn’t have to be the leader of the largest bloc, the head of the largest party or the party chairman who receives the most recommendations from his colleagues in the Knesset.
But it has traditionally been a party leader who satisfies at least two of those criteria. That is why the remaining 46 days of the election are so critical.
Beginning today, every speech matters. Every mistake will be magnified. Any misstep could be politically devastating. And the media, which Netanyahu so despises, will be more important than ever.
Everything said and done in the election prior to Thursday no longer matters. That includes statements that in retrospect look hypocritical.
Asked during a January 1 press conference whether he would be willing to give up his top slot for Gantz, Lapid answered, “My short answer is no” and then mocked the reporter who asked.
“I have said all along that to win, all forces must unite behind us,” he said. “I will lead Yesh Atid in the next election. I will not concede my place to anyone.”
Lapid also ruled out joining a government led by Netanyahu if he is indicted pending a hearing. Blue and White’s third candidate, the now overshadowed former IDF chief Moshe Ya’alon, has made that commitment as well.
Despite speculation that he would make a similar promise in his speech on Thursday night as part of the deal with Lapid, Gantz did not rule out joining a Netanyahu-led government.
Perhaps that is because Gantz knows he is engaged in what promises to be an uphill battle. In all of his elections, Netanyahu has tried to build up a credible threat from an alternative in order to help his Likud rob votes from its satellite parties on the Right.
That will once again be his strategy now that the April 9 election has begun anew.