Tuesday at 10.01 pm, a minute after the ballot boxes were sealed, the three TV news programs announced the results of their exit polls.
The dire predictions of the pessimists were scattered to the winds. Israel has not gone crazy.
It has not moved to the right. The fascists have not taken over the Knesset. Binyamin Netanyahu has not been strengthened. Far from it.
Israel has moved to the center.
It was not a historic turning moment, like the takeover of Menachem Begin in 1977, after two generations of Labor Party rule. But it was a significant change.
All this after an election campaign without content, without excitement, without any discernible emotion.
On election day, which is an official holiday, I repeatedly looked out of my window, above one of Tel Aviv's main streets. There was not the slightest indication that anything special was going on. In previous elections, the street was crowded with taxis and private cars covered with party posters, carrying voters to the polling stations. This time I did not see a single one.
In the polling station, I was alone. But the beach was crowded. People had taken their dogs and children to play in the sand under the brilliant winter sun, sailing boats dotted the blue sea. Hundreds of thousands drove to the Galilee or the Negev. Many had hired a Zimmer (curiously we use the German word for a bed-and-breakfast room).
But by the end of the day, almost 67% of Israelis had voted -- more than last time. Even the Arab citizens, most of whom did not vote during the day, suddenly awoke and thronged the ballot stations during the last two hours -- after the Arab parties cooperated in a massive action to get the voters out.
WHEN THE exit polls were published, the leaders of half a dozen parties, including Netanyahu, hastened to make victory speeches. A few hours later, most of them, Netanyahu included, looked silly. The real results changed the picture only slightly, but enough for some to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.
The great loser of the election is Binyamin Netanyahu. At the last moment before the start of the campaign he united his list with that of Avigdor Lieberman. That made him seemingly invincible. No one doubted that he would win, and win big. Experts gave him 45 seats, up from the 42 the two lists had in the outgoing Knesset.
That would have put him in a position where he could pick coalition partners (or, rather, coalition servants) at will.
He ended up with a mere 31 seats -- losing a quarter of his strength. It was a slap in the face. His main election slogan was "A strong leader, A strong Israel." Strong no more. He will still become Prime Minister again, but as a shadow of his former self. Politically he is near his end.
What remains of his faction makes up a quarter of the next Knesset. That means that he will be a minority in any coalition he may be able to put together (which needs 61 members at least). If Lieberman's people are deducted from the number, Likud proper has just 20 seats, only one more than the real victor of this election.
THE REAL VICTOR is Ya'ir Lapid, who amazed everyone, especially himself (and me), with an astounding 19 seats. That makes his the second largest faction in the Knesset, after Likud-Beitenu.
How did he do it? Well, he has the handsome, youthful look and body language of a TV anchorman, which indeed he was for many years. Everyone knows his face. His message consisted of platitudes, which upset no one. Though now almost 50 years old, he was the candidate of the young.
His victory is part of a generational change. Like Naftali Bennett on the right, he attracted young people who are fed up with the old system, the old parties, the old, hackneyed slogans. They were not looking for a new ideology, but for a new face. Lapid's was the most handsome face around.
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