RAMAT GAN — Despite a poor showing at the polls, feelings were mixed among supporters who gathered at the Jewish Home party headquarters in Ramat Gan Tuesday, as subdued shock over a four-seat decline compared to the 2013 elections gave way to tentative satisfaction in light of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s overall election victory.
The mood already felt awry as early as Monday, when party chief Naftali Bennett issued a foreboding warning to prevent the “fall of religious Zionism” and stop the apparent “bleeding” of votes to Netanyahu’s Likud — as constituents rallied behind the beleaguered prime minister at the eleventh-hour, seemingly at expense of the Jewish Home party.
Indeed, even before the exit polls were published right before 10 p.m. Tuesday, tones were hushed at the command post, and officials undecidedly mum — with one supporter quipping, “we’ll wait for results and then see,” while other members refused to comment altogether as they worriedly perused phone messages to gather any sort of prior poll indications.
And when the results did filter in — a lackluster outcome of just 8 seats, down from the 12 they held two years ago — supporters immediately reacted with sudden pause followed by muted looks of shock. Yes, Netanyahu had won. But this was not the performance that they hoped for.
As the picture became clearer, the extent to which votes purportedly intended for the Jewish Home party “bled” away to other factions, was splashed bare on every one of Israel’s news channels and over the multiple wall-to-wall TV screens at party headquarters.
The uninspiring result, as party no. 4 Eli Ben-Dahan told the Times of Israel, was because voters neglected their own party and ran to “save” other factions at the behest of political and community leaders within the religious Zionist public.
“[Our supporters] were told that [Eli Yishai’s] Yachad party won’t pass the electoral threshold, so they went and voted for him. They were told that perhaps Netanyahu would receive less seats than the Zionist Union, so they left the Jewish Home party and ran to [Likud],” Ben-Dahan said.
“How do you lose 4 seats? You go to save Eli Yishai and Netanyahu,” he said.
Again and again, speaking to party officials, activists and supporters, the same message intoned loud and clear: We are the sacrificial lamb upon which a Netanyahu victory was forged.
Yishai and his Yachad party did not pass the 3.25% electoral threshold. But Netanyahu did achieve a dramatic win, heading for 30 seats over the Zionist Union with 24 seats — up from his underdog status on Friday where he was trailing by four. This was a marked departure from the tie between the two parties initially announced with exit polls earlier in the night.
Indeed, if the rapturous crowds of seminary teens and sandal-wearing youngsters in downtown Jerusalem Monday night were anything to go by, then the Jewish Home party was slated to cruise to an easy victory.
From 12 mandates last elections, a strong initial breakout polling nearly 20 seats at the beginning of this election season certainly left party officials feeling that they could become Israel’s new political kingmakers.
However a slow ebb and flow in the straw polls gradually chipped away at the numbers — that remained steady at around 15 the past month, but fell to around 12 late Friday. Party activists went into emergency mode over the weekend after a message circulated by Bennett warned that results could even drop to single-digits.
“It’s not easy to take a blow, and we took a blow,” Yinon Magal, a former journalist and number six on the party slate told The Times of Israel.
“But we’re not working here for the Jewish Home party only. We are working for the Land of Israel, the people of Israel and the Torah of Israel,” Magal said, adding that as long as they are part of the governing coalition, Israel will be saved from future land withdrawals and future concessions to the Palestinians.
Losing the battle. Winning the war.
Number eight on the party list Bezalel Smotrich noted that although there was hope for a better result, party supporters don’t have “puffed up egos,” and could live with the gentle rebuke they received from the Israeli electorate amid an overall Netanyahu win.
“Given that we were up against a crazy [political] campaign, the proportions of which were never before seen before in Israel, we’re quite pleased that the right-wing bloc won,” Smotrich said.
“It was a campaign waged by Ynet, [Yedioth news chief] Noni Mozes and the V15 organization with funding that totaled millions of foreign dollars,” he said, referring to the vocal grassroots campaign currently the focus of a Senate probe for election impropriety that attempted to unseat Netanyahu and replace him with a center-left coalition.
When Bennett finally arrived at the Jewish Home headquarters, thronged on all sides by flag-waving supporters, the dust had inevitably settled and politics would soon be taking its place.
“Netanyahu called me. I praised him for the great victory of the national camp. We concluded that we will begin negotiations to establish the government. I tell you, my friends, in these negotiations we will not focus on cabinet positions, rather on values,” Bennett told the crowd to euphoric applause.
“We will take care to ensure a government … that will safeguard the Land of Israel in its entirety. A government that will ensure the Jewish character of the State of Israel. A government that will protect IDF soldiers from outside [legal] persecution,” he said.
“We will secure a government that will safeguard a united Jerusalem under the sovereignty of Israel, and Israel only. And a government that will not give a centimeter of Israeli land to the Arabs,” he said as the crowd cheered back to him “the nation demands a Jewish Home!”
“We’re running long distance. We are not afraid, and we don’t lower our heads. We raise our heads higher and higher. We love the people of Israel, the land of Israel. We, all of us, love the Torah of Israel and the soldiers of the Israel Defense Forces,” he said to applause.
The crowd, energized and livelier than ever, chanted back: “The eternal people does not fear the lengthy path,” using an oft quoted phrase coined by prominent religious-Zionist Rabbi Yehoshua Weitzman and utilized by former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in one of his speeches.
As Bennett left the room to thunderous acclaim and the crowd of activists and journalists dispersed, this reporter was approached by a young party supporter — still too young to vote — who managed in one sentence to sum up the atmosphere on the ground.
“We wanted the Jewish Home to get more mandates. Even though I’m actually quite content with the overall outcome, I’m disappointed with our party’s end-result,” Yishai of Ramat Gan told me.
“Do you have anything else to add?” I asked.
“Yes! Bennett is a bro!”