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(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
After failing in his last-ditch effort to muster Kadima leader Tzipi Livni's support for a unity government, President Shimon Peres on Friday afternoon formally conferred the task of building a coalition on Likud chairman Binyamin Netanyahu.
Earlier, after emerging from her meeting with Peres, Livni announced that she had no intention of joining a broad coalition under Netanyahu, despite the Likud chairman's assertion that he was willing to "go to great lengths" to induce Kadima to join his government.
The Kadima leader rejected the president's plea that she reconsider joining a coalition comprised of the three largest parties - Kadima, Likud and Israel Beiteinu - and asserted that a "broad coalition is worthless if it is not governed by values."
Despite this, Netanyahu said that Kadima would be the first party he turns to after receiving the nod from Peres.
He called on Livni and Labor leader Ehud Barak, as well as other parties, to put politics aside and to join his coalition. Despite their ideological differences, they were united in their commitment to Israel's well-being, Netanyahu said.
What he wanted to achieve, he said, was peace with Israel's neighbors "and unity among ourselves."
"We have not been confronted with so many challenges at the same time in decades," Netanyahu said, after receiving the letter of appointment from Peres. "To face these challenges, we need to join hands and unite all the forces within the people.
"I call on all parties, those who recommended me [for prime minister] and those who didn't. I turn to Livni and to Barak - let us join hands and pledge for the future of Israel. I hope to meet with you first and discuss a broad unity government."
Later on Friday, it was reported that Netanyahu had telephoned Livni and the two are to meet on Sunday. Livni, however, said she was not likely to change her mind.
Though it was more or less a foregone conclusion that Peres would give Netanyahu the nod, Peres by law had to wait until he had met with delegations from all 12 parties represented in the 18th Knesset.
He received the official election results from Central Elections Committee head justice Eliezer Rivlin on Wednesday evening, and just over an hour later met with the Kadima faction, followed by the Likud.
On Thursday he met with the 10 remaining parties.
On Friday morning, after separate meetings with Livni and Netanyahu in which he tried to persuade Livni to join a Netanyahu-led coalition, he decided not to mull the situation over the weekend, but instead to summon Netanyahu back to Beit Hanassi to give him his formal letter of appointment to form a government.
The media was given less than an hour's notice of the president's intention, and the ceremony was hastily scheduled for 2:15 p.m. When this reporter arrived at the president's residence at 1:50, there were two or three television crews and a couple of stills photographers. Gradually others started to arrive.
Beit Hanassi maintenance people were busy at one end of the reception hall, nailing blue bunting to a double-decker stage intended for television cameramen. At the other end of the hall, a florist was putting the finishing touches to flower arrangements placed in front of the podiums at which the president and the prime minister-designate would be standing.
"Will it start on time?" asked one of the journalists who had joined the photographers.
"Of course not," responded another. "Bibi is almost always late."
"Not this time," said a Beit Hanassi staff member. "He'll come running."
"He'll definitely be on time," added a photographer from the Government Press Office.
Well, some habits are hard to break, and as usual Netanyahu arrived late - though not terribly so.
Netanyahu did not greet the large media turnout waiting for him, but with eyes straight ahead, strode into the reception hall. His tete-a-tete with Peres was relayed live to the world via Channel 10, but the bulk of the media people who had come to capture the historic moments for posterity remained outside, and there was no television set or laptop handy for them to watch.
Because he had been late arriving, the ceremony in the main hall, which had initially been scheduled for 2:30 p.m., was also delayed.
Some of the out-of-town media people who had reached Beit Hanassi after Netanyahu griped about the time, wondering why the ceremony had to take place on Friday afternoon rather than waiting until Sunday morning.
Someone surmised that Peres wanted to get it over and done with to make Sunday's cabinet session more interesting.
Peres noted that most of the factions had expressed a desire for a broad coalition.
He was hopeful that Netanyahu could accomplish the task quickly, "because Israel needs a stable administration" that can effectively implement foreign and domestic policies that answer the needs and challenges of the state - challenges that are great and urgent, Peres said.
Netanyahu, in accepting the mandate, also referred to the urgency of the challenges, not the least of which is the nuclear threat from Iran.