Leftist, secular Tel Aviv went to sleep last night cautiously optimistic only to wake up this morning in a state of utter and absolute devastation.
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For many in the so-called “bubble,” it was May 1996 all over again – the election that brought Benjamin Netanyahu to power for the first out of four times. In that election, held half a year after Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated, Israelis went to bed confident that his successor, Labor party leader Shimon Peres, would be the next prime minister, only to wake up to news the following morning that Netanyahu had slipped ahead with a few thousand critical votes.
The last polls published this past weekend showed that the Zionist Union, the main center-left party, had a clear edge of 3-4 seats over Likud. But the exit polls published last night found that not only was the race neck-and-neck, but that only Likud had a viable chance of cobbling together a coalition. That didn’t mean all hope was lost, as many were praying that once the real votes were counted, things might look different and more in line with the weekend polls.
By the early morning hours Wednesday, with the final tally out, those hopes were dashed as well. The first news bulletins of the day announced that Likud was 5-6 seats ahead of Zionist Union – the equivalent in Israel of a landslide victory. Even worse, Meretz, the left-wing Zionist party, was down by one seat, teetering on the verge of extinction, while Yisrael Beiteinu, the right-wing party headed by the anti-Arab Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman, had gained a seat, even if it was crushed compared to the last election.
Clearly the sense of devastation among the left was exacerbated by the fact that in this election, in contrast to the previous race held in January 2013, there seemed to be signs that Netanyahu’s charm was wearing off and the nation was ready for change.
But according to historian and writer Fania Oz-Salzberger, it turns out that these optimistic assessments were based on limited information. “The center-left in Israel had mobilized and was feeling very upbeat because everyone they knew was either voting Zionist Union or Meretz,” she said. “Nobody was speaking to the traditional Likud voters or the religious voters outside the camp. And if anything, some prominent members of the left actually insulted these voters, describing them as mystics and prejudiced people. So the tribe was indeed mobilized, but just within itself.”
A breakdown of the votes in Tel Aviv indicates that residents of the bubble, out of touch with the rest of country, certainly had good reason to believe their side would win. The Zionist Union captured almost twice as many votes in Israel’s cultural and commercial capital than Likud, more than a third of the total (compared with 19 percent nationwide). After Likud, which took 18 percent of the vote in Tel Aviv (compared with 23 percent nationwide), Meretz was the next big winner in Tel Aviv with 13 percent of the vote (compared with barely 4 percent nationwide). The centrist Yesh Atid party, which garnered the most votes in the city in the last round, settled for fourth place this time with 11.5 percent of the total (compared with just under 9 percent nationwide).
The signs of desperation and despondency on the left were evident on social media posts this morning, full of doomsday predictions as well as considerable soul-searching. Their common motif: Oy Gevalt.
Mickey Gitzin, a Tel Aviv city councilman, described the mood on the street as the city was waking up as “absolute shock.”
“It clearly indicates that there is lots of dissonance between the elites of Tel Aviv and the reality of Israel, which is much more complex and much more tribal than many of us think,” said Gitzin, who serves as director of Be Free Israel, a movement that promotes religious freedom and pluralism. “Contrary to what many people are saying, the problem wasn’t with the campaign of the left but with the fact that the left just wants to be heard and doesn’t necessarily want to hear.”
Guy Spigelman, a Labor party activist, has been living in Tel Aviv on and off for the past 20 years, ever since he immigrated to Israel from Australia. “I was just sitting having coffee with some friends, and we’re all in a state of shock,” he said. “We really thought we had it this time. I could feel it in the polling booth, that people were happy, that they came motivated, and that they wanted to kick Bibi out. We haven’t felt that in a long time, that feeling that it’s possible, that we can do it.”
Spigelman heads the Israel operation of PresenTense, an organization that promotes social entrepreneurship. He’s already thinking about how to explain what happened to his colleagues abroad. “As an immigrant who works a lot with Jewish communities around the world, I really wonder after these results how they can keep defending an Israel with a leadership that so blatantly used racist tactics to get elected,” he said.
As the left licks its wounds, it also needs to be drawing the right lessons, said Oz-Salzberger. “I’m concerned by the blindness that Tel Aviv exercised toward what is not Tel Aviv. If we have anything to learn, it’s that there is a need for a truly respectful and dialogical attitude to those who don’t vote like us.”