Jerusalem — At 10 p.m. on Tuesday, when Israel’s TV channels released their election-night exit polls, Elimelech Gould sat in front of the flat screen at the Soho Pub in downtown Jerusalem and calculated whether Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party could muster enough seats to form a new right-wing government.
Although the final election results would not be announced until the next morning at the earliest — Israelis vote with paper ballots and every one needs to be counted — various exit polls showed Benny Gantz’s Blue and White party slightly ahead of Likud, or the two parties neck-in-neck.
The same exit polls indicated that Netanyahu and not Gantz could likely gather enough support to form the next government, though that is still far from certain.
“Bibi and only Bibi!” Gould, 22, shouted happily. A bunch of his friends at the bar joined the chant.
For many Israelis, the exit polls were the culmination of a day filled with excitement, and dread. Those on the center and left cringed at the thought that Netanyahu, who recently announced that he intends to annex parts of the West Bank, might lead the country for another term, his fourth. Right-wingers insisted (falsely) that Gantz planned to join forces with Israel’s Arab parties and give up the West Bank and east Jerusalem to the Palestinians.
“Exit polls have been proven wrong in the past,” the Times of Israel noted. “In the previous election in 2015, the exit polls saw a tie between Isaac Herzog’s Zionist Union and Netanyahu’s Likud, while in actuality Likud had won six seats more than Zionist Union.”
This year, Election Day was a rare secular national holiday, and many took advantage of the summery weather and went to the beach or on a hike. The majority took the time to vote either before or after their excursions.
But some, like Gould, a part-time construction worker and part-time pizza deliverer who will soon study to become a pilot at an aviation academy, had to work on Election Day.
Gould, who comes from a charedi family but is now not religious, said he strongly supports Netanyahu “because he’s formed 1,000 connections with politicians and diplomats and countries since [becoming] prime minister” a decade ago. “Gantz and [Yair] Lapid don’t have this kind of international clout.”
Gould’s friend, Maliyah Reuven, 23, a security guard at Jerusalem’s Central Bus Station, is also a big Netanyahu fan.
“Thanks to Bibi, President [Donald] Trump recognized Israel’s sovereignty over Jerusalem and the Golan Heights, and thanks to Bibi, leaders from all over the world visit Israel, or Bibi visits them. He was just hosted by Russia’s President [Vladimir] Putin.”
Reuven rejected accusations that Netanyahu is corrupt, despite intentions by the attorney general to indict him, pending an official hearing.
“People are just looking for things to fault [Netanyahu] for,” he declared.
Asked whether Netanyahu has done enough to prevent Hamas from launching rockets into Israel, Reuven replied: “There were rockets being launched before Bibi came into office, and there will be rockets launched after he leaves office. The rockets aren’t his fault.”
Rivki Gould, Elimelech’s sister, who is charedi, said she voted for an ultra-Orthodox party for one reason: “My community’s rabbi told us to.”
Her hope is that Likud will woo the charedi parties into his governing coalition, as he did during his most recent term in office.
“Bibi understands the charedi community’s priorities. I don’t think Gantz does.”
At Mike’s Place, a bar across the alleyway, Shira Mandel said she voted for Gantz’s Blue and White party because she wanted a change.
“I think Bibi’s had enough time to negotiate some kind of peace treaty with the Palestinians, but that’s not even on his agenda,” Mandel, who is in her 30s, said. “In fact, just the opposite. He’s openly announced that he intends to annex parts of the West Bank, even though many, probably most of us, think this would be a fatal mistake.”
Mandel believes that Blue and White, which is led by three former IDF chiefs of staff and Yair Lapid, a veteran politician, has the necessary military skill set to keep Israel at least as safe as Netanyahu has.
“Netanyahu is no slouch in the security department, but we’ve had three military confrontations with Hamas and the stabbing intifada since he took office. We’re not at war but this isn’t really peace either,” Mandel said.
At a downtown café, a young waitress named Fatima said she would have loved to vote in Tuesday’s election, but that that was impossible.
“I’m a Palestinian from Ramallah, the West Bank,” she explained in flawless Hebrew. “I don’t have citizenship or a residency permit.”
Given the opportunity, Fatima, 23, said she would have voted for the Arab Movement for Change (Ta’al) party of Ahmed Tibi “because the party represents my values most closely.”
She would gladly accept citizenship, she said, “because I live here in Israel and want to help shape the country.”
Her co-worker Mohammed, 24, who is also from the West Bank, expressed similar views.
“Living in the West Bank is a balagan,” Mohammed said, using the Hebrew word for chaotic. “Israel is far from perfect, but I have a better life here. It’s less extreme. I’d love to be able to vote, have a say in how the country is run.”
Michele Chabin is contributing editor at The New York Jewish Week, NJJN’s sister publication.