In a jubilant speech before Likud supporters Tuesday night, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared election victory and intimated that a unity government with the Zionist Union was not in the offing.
“Against all odds, we achieved a great victory for Likud. We achieved a great victory for our people,” he told Likud members and activists at the Likud headquarters in Tel Aviv late Tuesday.
“I’m proud of the people of Israel, that in the moment of truth they knew how to separate the important from the trivial, and to stand for what’s important, for a real defense, a responsible economy, and a socially conscious economy that we’re committed to…. I can tell you with confidence that we stand before diplomatic and defense challenges, and economic and social challenges. We promised to act on the cost of housing, and we’re going to do it,” he said.
Netanyahu also hinted at a rejection of any proposed unity government with the Zionist Union.
“And now we must establish a strong, stable government that will take care of the security and welfare of all Israel’s citizens,” Netanyahu said, sparking fear among Likud members present that he was about to announce a unity government.
“We don’t want unity!” the activists began to shout, but were soon calmed.
“I phoned all the leaders of the parties belonging to the national camp [a term for the right wing] and called on them to join me to establish a government without delay. Reality doesn’t take a break. The citizens of Israel expect us to form a responsible leadership that will work for them,” the prime minister said.
Netanyahu also seemed to delicately backtrack on some of the more hardline remarks of the past couple days, in which he warned about high Arab turnout and “foreign governments” seeking the Likud’s fall.
The priorities of his next government, he said, “are important to every family, every young couple, every soldier, every citizen of Israel, Jewish and non-Jewish alike. You are all important, and you are all important to me.”
When a tie is a victory
The last polls before the elections predicted a four-point lead for the Zionist Union, and Netanyahu’s constant warning that Likud and the national camp as a whole were in real danger of losing the elections had lowered the expectations so much that the results of the exit polls — which announced a tie — were seen as a huge victory.
Many had no longer feared a crushing defeat, after Netanyahu’s formidable effort to regain the trust of right-wing voters by disavowing his support for Palestinian statehood and espousing other hawkish views. Still, many Likudniks were nervous about losing the elections, or at least not winning it.
Judging by the celebrations that erupted in the hall as soon as it emerged that Netanyahu was actually set to remain prime minister, activists were reacting as if their party had won a decisive victory. In the last elections in 2013, Likud and Yisrael Beytenu won by a much larger margin and it was certain that Netanyahu would survive another term in office. And yet, the mood in the hall then was much more subdued than it was this time around night.
Likud activists had braced themselves for much worse and their huge relief was apparent. Tuesday’s event had the feel of a wedding. Thousands of white Likud voting slips were spread across the floor. Activists hugged and congratulated each other to the sound of loud pop songs, including “You’re the bomb,” with which Israeli singer Sarit Hadad once famously serenaded Netanyahu at a campaign event.
“We won! It’s an amazing victory, there are no other words to describe what happened,” party activist Even Cohen, of Ramat Gan, said.
Despite the neck-and-neck standings of Likud and Zionist Union, he explained, it was obvious that the right-wing camp had won the elections and would form the next government. “It’s not a tie,” he said.
“There will be no left-wing government. [The Zionist Union] will never sit with the Arabs, there’s no such thing. [Kulanu party leader Moshe] Kahlon will come home to the Likud and we’ll have a stable coalition,” he cheered.
Earlier in the evening, pessimism had dominated the atmosphere in the hall, which was half-empty even after the ostensible victory became evident and Netanyahu was making his way from his Jerusalem residence to address the party members at the Tel Aviv Fairgrounds.
“I’m cautiously optimistic,” David Shayan, the chairman of Young Likud, had said about half an hour before the exit polls were released. “I’ve spent a lot of time in the field today. I got some good feedback, but there is still a gap between the Zionist Union and the Likud that we need to reduce,” the 33-year-old West Bank resident said. At that time, he still believed that Netanyahu’s prime ministerial challenger Isaac Herzog would get several seats more than the incumbent.
“We’ll still be in a better position to build a coalition, because the majority of the public wants Netanyahu as prime minister,” he said, not sounding entirely convinced of his own assessment.
Another party activist, who didn’t want to give his name, was more skeptical. “It’ll be a tie,” he predicted, adding that a unity government with Likud and Zionist Union was the most likely scenario. “The problem is Eli Yishai’s party [Yachad]. They won’t cross the threshold. That’s a problem.”
Then, as Channel 10’s exit polls were projected at the giant screens in the hall, announcing that both Likud and Zionist Union were projected to receive 27 mandates, the hall erupted in cheers. Some activists started chanting “Bibi, Bibi,” but stopped after a few seconds, perhaps realizing that, while definitely comforting, the results were not a decisive victory that promised them four years in power with a stable coalition.
As the party members waited for their chairman to conclude his first efforts at build a coalition by calling the heads of the parties he thinks he can best work with, current and future MKs readily gave interviews to the dozens of journalists who had come to Tel Aviv to explain to the nation and the world that the neck-and-neck result was indeed an incredible triumph.
“We started by polling at 21 seats, and now we got 28,” said Yoav Kisch, a retired El Al pilot and future lawmaker, referring to Channel’s 2’s exit poll. “That’s a victory.”