December 18, 2018

A day at the polls in Tel Aviv

Election Day is always a national holiday in Israel. School and work are canceled; cafes, sidewalks and shopping centers bust at the seams. But this year, unlike most years, there was something extra to celebrate: The election results expected to stream in between 10 p.m. and midnight were, for once, not a sure thing.

“Most of the people feel like they’re choosing the lesser evil — but they’re at least hopeful that a change could happen,” said Hadas Shehory, a 26-year-old staffer at a polling center inside the Gordon School in north Tel Aviv, right across from the beach.

On the sidewalk in front of Gordon School, a mess of volunteers for left-wing and center-left parties like the Zionist Union, Yesh Atid and Meretz overlapped banners, debated issues and waved fliers at Tel Avivians entering the school to vote. They also argued over which would be the best voting strategy to ensure a parliament that would nominate left-wing Zionist Union candidate Isaac “Buji” Herzog as prime minister over right-wing Likud candidate Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu.

“Don’t take this as an example,” said Shehory. “In other cities in the country, you can see a lot of violence and tension. Tel Aviv is a liberal place where everybody is happy, happy — even when they argue.”

Indeed, elsewhere in the country, the religious Yisrael Beitunu party complained that its campaigners were assaulted outside polling stations in Arab-majority towns; and in the hotbed Israeli capital of Jerusalem, diehard supporters of right-wing parties like Likud were seen marching with slogans on their T-shirts and signs, shouting and trying to make a last-minute ruckus.

In the heat of Tuesday’s battle, party heads also took to Facebook and Twitter to post some of their most inflammatory campaign statements yet. Netanyahu warned his supporters that “the Arabs are moving in droves to the polling stations,” referring to the unexpected and historic success of the Joint List, a union of four Arab-dominated parties expected to win big on March 17. Naftali Bennett, head of the right-wing religious Jewish Home party, claimed that lefties were using “foreign funds” to post campaigners outside polling stations. Zionist Union head Herzog urged his followers to “join the upheaval” so Israel “won't wake up tomorrow morning with the same lying, divisive, inciting prime minister.”

The streets of Tel Aviv were less riled up, but filled with an undeniable competitive spirit. Friends argued on shared taxis and sported opposing party stickers. “Herzog is a baby,” said Haim Shapira, 60, after voting for Netanyahu. “I’m thinking about leaving the country if Buji will win.” His friend Henry Guttmann, 73, had just dropped a vote for Herzog’s party into a blue ballot box inside a classroom at Gordon School; when he exited, Shapira pretended to hold a gun to Guttmann’s head. “We’re going to kill him later,” he joked.

A few Tel Aviv taxis drove around with full-sized Israeli flags billowing from their rears. “Yair Lapid is sh**!” screamed one young man joyously of Yesh Atid’s popular leader as he drove past voters at the Gordon School.

Some were more grim. Likud supporter Nerry Sternberg, 55, said Israelis would be in grave danger in the hands of Herzog. “Nobody knows the real nature of the Arabs like the right wing and Bibi Netanyahu,” he said. “Europe doesn’t understand; Obama doesn’t understand. They think with some nice talking they can turn these people’s nature around.”

Many others had the economy, not security, on their minds. Israeli media outlets dubbed the 2015 vote the “chocolate pudding election” early on, in honor of Israeli voters’ rising fury over low wages and high prices.

“People are desperate for an improvement in their financial situation,” said one middle-aged female voter in Tel Aviv who did not wish to give her name. Another, normally a devout left-winger, said she had voted for the conservative party Kulanu solely because of its promises to lower the cost of living.

Polls leading up to Election Day showed that, based on any complex number of outcomes, the Israeli prime minister’s job could be either Netanyahu or Herzog’s grab. That insecurity was apparent in warring campaign paraphernalia across the country, including in Tel Aviv: Within a one-block radius of the Gordon School polling spot, the starring faces of the 2015 Israeli election loomed on bus stops, billboards, roadways. Buji; Bibi; Zionist Union’s Tzipi Livni; Jewish Home’s Avigdor Lieberman; Lapid; Bennett; Meretz’s Zahava Gal-On. Once entering the school, voters cast their ballots in classrooms with school-kid illustrations of Israel’s founding fathers staring down at them, as they puzzled through which party would give them “Bibi” or “No Bibi.”

“I believe this time, there will be something new,” said Israeli-Arab voter Qusay Muzaffer, 24, wearing a shirt for Meretz — a mainstay leftist party at risk this year of not scoring a single seat in parliament. “Now we just have to wait until 10 o’clock tonight.”