Tel Aviv — “Giddy up, Bibi, Bibi, Bibi, King of Israel!”
Ecstatic Likud activists gathered at the party’s election headquarters broke out in chants and hugs when the numbers of the exit polls flashed on the screen showing that they had miraculously pulled even with the center-left Zionist Union in the final days of the campaign despite polls that unanimously pointed to defeat. [Later in the evening, the results showed Likud pulling ahead to a decisive victory over the center-left Zionist Union.]
“It’s a big victory for Likud and a big victory for the prime minister,” said Yoav Kisch, a parliament candidate from the Likud list. “The grassroots won.”
Even though the early exit polls suggested the right and left blocs in parliament would be near parity with Kulanu, the centrist party of ex-Likud minister Moshe Kahlon, as the kingmaker, Likudniks gathered at the headquarters expressed confidence that Kahlon would join with the prime minister as finance minister.
“Kahlon was together with me in the party when we were young activists,” said Naomi Blumenthal, a former Knesset member. “We will say you are from our family. We share the same values and the same ideology.”
It didn’t matter that Kahlon, the former communications minister who said that the Likud had abandoned its core values of supporting the Israeli underclass, was still waiting for the final results to announce whom he would support. Likudniks expressed confidence that Kahlon could not anoint a center-left government and expect to survive politically in the future.
“If Kahlon is smart, he needs to understand that if he doesn’t go with Likud, it will be the end of his career,” said Oshrat Berrebi, a third-generation Likud activist from Jerusalem.
Mitchell Barak, an Israeli-American pollster, said that Kahlon would need to tread carefully before accepting the prime minister’s invitation to join the government as finance minister. Having a finance minister and a prime minister who are political rivals is considered a recipe for tension and infighting. To be an effective finance minister, Kahlon would need the full backing of Benjamin Netanyahu, who reneged on a promise during the last government to make him head of the Israel Lands Authority. “There is a history here. It could be political suicide.”
For the most part, there wasn’t worry among Likudniks about who would join the coalition and whether Netanyahu would be able to cobble together a majority of the right-wing and religious parties considered his so-called natural parties.
Instead, there was a sense of vindication after the Israeli media had portrayed the party as falling apart and dropping fast in the polls. Now, newly minted Knesset members were posing with their arms around each other in front of television cameras, while others shouted catcalls at reporters.
“It’s a huge victory because the media was against us,” said Ra’anan Mor, a Likud activist from the Tel Aviv suburb of Kfar Saba. “They tried to take the Likud down and build up the Labor party. I expect that the new government will be based on the right wing and form a stable government. We have huge challenges ahead.”
Bearded religious Likudniks with tallit fringes posed with Likud flags underneath a campaign banner of Netanyahu reading, “It’s Us or Them.”
Earlier in the evening the mood was much more tense. Netanyahu’s message to the party faithful that his rule was in danger, and that Arabs were turning out in droves, struck a sense of foreboding. Minutes before the results were announced, Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz’s face looked pale as he tried to crack a smile.
Likud activists were predicting a tie, but they didn’t sound that convinced. Despite the anxiety, there was precious little criticism of the prime minister, who started the election in the driver’s seat well ahead in the polls and ended the campaign in a series of 11th-hour interviews.
“It’s very close,” said David Shayan, an activist from the West Bank settlement of Leshem, who said that Likud had worked for every vote. “If there’s a tie, it doesn’t mean we have to switch leadership,” he said when asked if Netanyahu should step down if the party didn’t win outright.
“I was in Herzliya and Ramat Gan,” he said. “There was a good feeling. I felt that most of the people still want Bibi as prime minister.”
At the end of the night, it looked like Shayan would turn out to be right.