JERUSALEM – When President Reuven Rivlin on Wednesday night handed the mandate to opposition leader Yair Lapid to form a government, the clock began ticking.
Lapid has just four weeks – 28 days – to do the impossible.
The centrist politician has to persuade the right-wing politicians in Israel, and most left-wing politicians, and most of the Arab politicians in the country, to join his government, or at least not vote against him.
To be clear, such a coalition has never been formed in the history of Israel.
Not with the active support of Arab politicians, all of whom have historically opposed every Israeli government and remained in the opposition.
There is certainly no guarantee Lapid can pull it off.
He does have a powerful tool in his toolbox, however.
There are at least 67 members of the Knesset who do not want Benjamin Netanyahu to remain prime minister.
Lapid only needs 61 to succeed.
If he succeeds, Netanyahu will face two dismal options: either become the leader of the opposition or leave the Knesset and politics altogether – and hope that he and his lawyers can successfully defeat the three criminal cases in motion against him.
But make no mistake: Netanyahu will fight to the bitter end.
Netanyahu is warning his long-time, right-wing allies not to join “a dangerous left-wing government.”
He and his Likud party are applying enormous pressure on the members of Naftali Bennett’s right-wing Yamina party to refuse to join a so-called “unity government” that comprises Lapid, the left-wing parties Labor and Meretz, as well as the Arab parties.
Even Netanyahu and Likud were heavily courting Mansour Abbas and his Arab Islamist Ra’am party because they desperately needed their 4 seats to form their own government.
Lapid – and Bennett, who would become prime minister for the first two years in such a unity government – accused Netanyahu of hypocrisy.
Nevertheless, Netanyahu has already succeeded in persuading one of Bennett’s allies to bolt.
Amichai Chikli, one of Yamina’s 7 Knesset Members, announced on Wednesday that he refuses to join such a unity government.
In a tweet, Chikli wrote: “Let there be no misunderstandings, I will vote against the establishment of a government with the Joint List and Meretz, exactly as we committed to the voter. Have a nice day.”
This is a serious blow to Bennett.
Could more defections be coming?
Bennett is pushing back hard.
“This is the time to stop and reconsider a new path,” Bennett told reporters and his colleagues on Wednesday. “Whoever cynically takes the State of Israel to fifth elections based on personal interests, in complete opposition to the needs of the nation and state, the people won’t forgive him. This is the time for a unity government.”
If Bennett’s team blows up, another round of elections is inevitable.
But it’s not just Bennett who has to hold things together.
At its core, this is a test for Lapid.
It is Lapid who received the mandate from President Rivlin.
It is Lapid who has the burden of forming a government.
Like any political thriller, the clock is ticking.
The big question is: Can Lapid actually defuse the ticking time bomb of a fifth round of elections?
Right now, no one but God Himself knows the answer.
Joel C. Rosenberg is the editor-in-chief of ALL ISRAEL NEWS and ALL ARAB NEWS and the President and CEO of Near East Media. A New York Times best-selling author, Middle East analyst, and Evangelical leader, he lives in Jerusalem with his wife and sons.