My family visit to Israel coincided with being there a week before the March 17 election until a week after. I saw, I heard and I lived the election experience, and I must say it wasn’t what I expected. And I don’t necessarily mean just the result.
I always thought Israeli elections were passionate, wild and woolly punch-outs that left the electorate and the participants emotionally exhausted. While I knew it was possible to win an election in Israel and then lose it because of the inability to form a coalition, I never thought the polls could be so wrong about picking the probable winner.
I thought when I arrived that the streets and cafés would be filled with election talk. But, although I speak and understand little Hebrew, I knew it wasn’t politics people were talking about. They were too calm. They were talking about anything but politics, and I began to think they didn’t have the energy for it.
While I had expected the streets to be plastered with election signage, there was little I really noticed in either Tel Aviv or Jerusalem apart from election ads on buses. Again, it was quiet. I would say very quiet for a week before an election – in any country, let alone in Israel.
As we recall, a week before voting day, it appeared the election was over. The polls consistently told a tale of the Likud coalition government being replaced by a left-of-centre coalition. There were so many stories about electoral fatigue towards Benjamin Netanyahu’s government, so many indications that change was imminent.
My daughters asked me what I thought, and I was careful to say that, while I’m not an expert on Israeli politics, my experience told me the polls are usually correct – especially when they are consistent. I added that, as Election Day approaches, and the polls are still leaning one way, it is most unusual to have a last-minute reversal.
The night before the vote, Likud staged a huge rally in Rabin Square in Tel Aviv. They bused in supporters from all over Israel with many coming from settlements. The street was blocked with thousands of flag-waving people everywhere. To me, it was the last loud stand of the desperate.
On election night, we went to a bar to watch the results. Once again, it was quiet and kind of bizarre since this American-style bar was also celebrating St. Patrick’s Day. It seemed like St. Patrick’s Day was a bigger hit than the election. The election just seemed to be happening on the giant screen as the exit poll results were being reported.
Once again, there seemed to be a lack of enthusiasm as the results seemed to indicate a tie for first place among the leading right and left wing parties. That being said, the left knew from the exit polls that Netanyahu’s Likud had a much better chance of forming a coalition government. That was clear, I was told, because, when we left the bar and crossed Rabin Square, there was no one on the left celebrating.
Rabin Square was empty. The only people I saw were TV reporters, one from Japan and one from Scandinavia, shooting their video stand-ups. They, too, obviously expected a crowd in the background.
The next morning, with all the votes counted, the exit polls were proven wrong. It wasn’t a virtual tie between left and right. It was a lights-out Netanyahu Likud right wing victory – and that part wasn’t so quiet.
Those last-minute remarks we are so well aware of now, of Netanyahu rejecting a two-state solution, and of the right needing to beat back droves of Arab voters, made loud headlines worldwide. In Israel, they wondered if he won the election because of them.
We and they may never know. But there is no question – for those who believe in the science of polling – that something dramatic changed the course of the election at the last minute. Did Netanyahu say those things out of frustration or out of conviction? Does it really matter now?
While visiting an Israeli friend, I was reminded, not in a conversation that had anything to do with politics, that, in Israel, anything and everything can dramatically change in two days.
They sure can.