As the first voters began to cast their ballots in over 10,000 polling around the country Thursday morning, the Blue and White party sent out footage of its number two, Yair Lapid, preparing for the day with his daily kickboxing training.
“Fighting for every vote,” said the brief statement, “changing the country.”
Less than two hours later, with Lapid now on his own way to vote, his legendary personal trainer and bodyguard of sorts, Guy Skornik, told The Times of Israel that Lapid was “very, very focused today.”
“I think if I had put Bibi’s face on the punching bag, he would have destroyed it,” Skornik joked before adding quickly, “Obviously we didn’t. He will beat him in the polls instead.”
Speaking to Blue and White activists after casting his ballot near his home in Tel Aviv’s Ramat Aviv neighborhood, Lapid imbued a similar determination, saying Blue and White needed just “a tiny push” to win.
“We’re a step away from victory, we need two more seats to win these historic elections in Israel. Just a tiny push and we are there,” Lapid said enthusiastically, slightly hoarse from a grueling three-month election campaign, to 30 or so party supporters clad in blue and white Blue and White T-shirts and waving a flag.
In the polling station in his affluent Tel Aviv neighborhood (where his Yesh Atid party — now merged into Blue and White — came top in the 2013 and 2015 elections), voters welcomed Lapid as a local hero.
“Keep going, Yair,” one woman shouted. “We are behind you,” said another.
The Blue and White party has an edge over Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud in polls but Netanyahu still appears to have the best chance of forming a coalition with an assortment of small right-wing parties backing him.
“What we need now is to go and work hard across the country to bring the votes we need for victory. Benny Gantz said this week that we are a meter from victory. Well, we are now a centimeter from victory,” Lapid told his supporters, referring to the Blue and White party leader.
A 40-minute drive away, in the central Israeli city of Rosh Ha’ayin, Gantz was similarly buoyant as he, a former IDF chief of staff with no prior political experience, made his way through throngs of supporters on the way to cast a vote that he hopes could help make him prime minister.
Acting like a seasoned campaigner, Gantz hugged his fans and party activists, posed for selfies, gave high fives and even kissed a few babies.
“We are so proud of you all,” he said alongside his wife Revital, both beaming. “Let’s make it happen.”
Entering the Nofim Elementary School, where Revital said all four of their children had studied, Gantz, now faced with a mob of reporters, took on a more pensive demeanor, as if he was contemplating the significance of the moment, or trying to look like it. Answering questions with one word apiece, Gantz said he felt “excellent,” he was “delighted” by the support, and he was “hopeful” about his chances.
After he cast his ballot, Gantz offered the reporters, photographers and TV cameras now crammed into the small classroom acting as a polling room both a message of hope that reflected the early messaging of his campaign and a realpolitik message of the kind that has marked its final days.
“This is a day of hope. A day of unity. I am looking the people of Israel in the eyes and telling them — this change is possible. I offer myself as Israel’s prime minister and together, we will take this new path.” he said, almost wistfully, before delivering a call to action to voters across the country.
“Likud has realized that we are going to be the biggest party, and in order to ensure this we must continue all the time and everywhere, to join, to go to vote, to influence, to exercise your voting privilege. We are going to win. One final push and we’ll get it done,” he said.
Before spending the rest of his day crisscrossing the country and stumping for votes, Gantz — in a possible poke at Netanyahu — made a point of stopping at each room where voting was taking place, thanking the volunteers for “making our democracy possible” and then at the stall of Meretz activists, wishing them a “happy democracy day.”
Stepping into his SUV, in perhaps a rush of campaign adrenaline, Gantz turned to the activists still following him and waving, and said a final, “We can do it. We are nearly there.”
At their respective polling stations, both Lapid and Gantz left a buzz behind them as their black cars rolled away from the gathered crowds uploading selfies to Facebook. But amid the excitement, and despite the claims by both leaders that victory was within reach, not all the party activists were convinced.
“I want them to win. I want them to win so much. That’s why I’m volunteering,” said 22-year-old Maya in Ramat Aviv. “But I don’t know. I can’t quite feel it happening.”
Guy Leder, 27, who said this was his third time volunteering for Lapid’s campaign, first with Yesh Atid and now with Blue and White, admitted that he felt Netanyahu would likely come out ahead.
In the campaign’s final days, Netanyahu has again played to his base and veered to the right, vowing to annex Jewish West Bank settlements if reelected and embarking on a media blitz in which he portrayed himself as the underdog and frantically warned that “the right-wing government is in danger.”
“We don’t have the same tools,” Leder said. “We have much more enthusiasm, but I don’t think we can compete with what [Netanyahu] does.”
Leder said he felt that the public was more susceptible to “baseless claims painting Gantz as a leftist” than the criminal accusations leveled against Netanyahu by the attorney general, which Blue and White has sought to play up.
Netanyahu has claimed that Gantz and his colleagues lack the wisdom and tenacity to keep Israel safe in the treacherous Middle East, would fail to maintain his warm ties with world leaders, and would make dangerous concessions to the Palestinians. Gantz has argued that Netanyahu has become corrupt in office and lost sight of his obligation to serve the people, and that it is long past time for him to go.
In Rosh Ha’ayin, Vicky Falk, 40, said she was pleased with how the campaign had been run but was also skeptical about a clear win. “It will not be easy. It will not be easy at all. That’s why I’m here, to try everything I can.”
Other activists, however, said they believed Gantz and Lapid’s claims that victory is around the corner.
“We have the momentum, we have the people, we have the spirit. I’m very positive about our chances to really make a change today,” said Omer, a Rosh Ha’ayin resident who joined the Blue and White local branch ahead of the vote.
“Benny Gantz is the right person for the job. He is honest. He is professional. He cares about the country and people know that and want change,” he said, railing against Netanyahu. “The situation here under Bibi has become unsustainable. He only cares about himself. The public discourse is so divided, so hateful, and he is to blame.”
Oren, another member of the Rosh Ha’ayin local branch, said that he did believe Gantz and Lapid would emerge on top. Probably.
“They will go all the way. I’m sure of it… I think,” he smiled.