TEL AVIV — The disappointment was already palpable long before they announced the disheartening results. At the Tel Aviv Fairgrounds, in the hall where Likud and Yisrael Beytenu supporters had gathered to celebrate what was to be a grand election victory, young party members were beating on drums and singing that “the most important thing” was not to be afraid. But after several exit polls that were leaked in the course of the evening predicted a bitterly disappointing result for the joint list of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and ex-foreign minister Avigdor Liberman, no one in the nearly empty hall could really hide their frustration. They tried, but fared fairly poorly.
“We’re a bit stressed, but that’s legitimate,” said Shoham Wechsler, 20, from Ra’anana, about 15 minutes before the major television networks announced the results of their exit polls. “But it’s still a hopeful day,” he said, sounding like a true politician who knows when he can tell the truth and when he has to be more circumspect. “When they’ll announce the results you’ll see the entire hall erupt in joy. Because Netanyahu will remain prime minister.”
“At the end of the day, we are sure that Netanyahu will be the winner,” agreed Jerusalem resident Or Zaken, 25. Far from the 42 seats the two parties held together in the outgoing Knesset, and even farther from the hoped-for results that party strategists had predicted, Zaken now said he hoped for 33 seats. Low expectations, but still perhaps too high.
At precisely 10 p.m., the television stations announced their exit polls. Thirty-one seats for Likud-Yisrael Beytenu. The activists in the hall hesitated for a few seconds. Then a dozen or so young activists started celebrating — or least pretended to celebrate, chanting songs and jumping around, but looking pretty uninspired.
Many of the people present were journalists and foreign diplomats, and none of them believed that the celebrating party members were actually happy.
“It’s pathetic,” one Israeli journalist remarked, pointing at a few activists huddled up near the deserted stage and chanting lackluster songs of victory.
Here and there a politician came in and spoke to the media, and the rather paltry crowd chanted his or Netanyahu’s name.
“Bibi will build the next government. It will be a bit harder now, but he did it in the past, he will do it again,” insisted Gil Halfin, a veteran Likud official from Ra’anana, and he was likely right.
“The campaign failed,” he charged, claiming that “the money didn’t come” and that party activists weren’t given enough material. “The Likud did so much over the last four years, so many achievements. But they didn’t emphasize this enough.”
Silver linings could be spotted everywhere. “Yesh Atid is not a left-wing party, it’s a transition party,” said Danny Hershtal, who was No. 73 on Yisrael Beytenu list, referring to the election’s big winner, the centrist party with 19 projected seats. “The left is falling apart,” he reasoned, and since many people who previously voted for the assassinated Labor prime minister Yitzhak Rabin are “not ready yet” to vote for Netanyahu, they have now decided to vote for Yair Lapid’s new party. Either way, Netanyahu will remain in power, he said, though he admitted he did not know yet how the next coalition would look like.
Ofer Barashi, 38, was one of the few Likud members who acknowledged his party has done something wrong to deserve this sober result. “On one hand, [the disappointing election result] is bad, on the other hand it’s also good. The Likud needs to wake up,” he said. A policy focused on “security is not enough,” explained Barashi, who says he joined the Likud 20 years ago. “The people are not able to finish the month, the gas and food and the rent — everything is so expensive. The people aren’t stupid.”
A little after midnight, Netanyahu arrived, and assured his supporters that he and they would be leading the next government. He said it would be a broad coalition that would “join hands” to “succeed together.” He thanked the party’s activists. He thanked Liberman. He thanked campaign chairman Gideon Sa’ar.
He set out his prospective government’s five priorities: Defensive might in the face of the immense challenges Israel faces, and first among them the Iranian nuclear threat; economic fortitude; responsible statesmanship in Israel’s sincere quest for true peace; a fairer sharing of the national burden; and reducing the cost of living and housing costs.
And then he was gone, declaring that the real work would begin tomorrow.