Up and down Tel Aviv’s tony Rothschild Boulevard, the epicenter of social protests in 2011, Israeli voters enjoying the national election-day holiday Tuesday were cautiously optimistic that change was in the warm spring air.
“Personally I feel there might really, really be a change today, which I didn’t feel the past two elections,” says Ronili, a fashionably dressed mother pushing her 4-year-old son in a swing. “I hope people are tired of being so racist, violent, against human rights, and undemocratic.”
In this leftist bastion, many voters are expressing the hope that the hard-fought election may bring the leadership needed to address socioeconomic issues – and improve relations with the US and Israel’s Palestinian neighbors.
Ronili spoke surrounded by fluttering campaign banners, vibrantly decorated tents, and T-shirted volunteers armed with stickers trying to win over undecided voters. She had already voted for the left-wing Meretz party, which polls indicated was struggling to pass the minimum threshold for representation in parliament.
Undecided voters, accounting for as much as 20 percent of the electorate, were a much sought-after constituency Tuesday, and turnout nationwide was reported to be high.
Center-left activists drove by in a beat-up car outfitted with a crackling megaphone, yelling, “We must vote!”
Their car was plastered in stickers and slogans for V15, or Victory 15, a new group that ran the first-ever door-to-door campaign in Israel, aimed at getting out the center-left vote. In the last three months, members have knocked on 150,000 doors, shared their personal reasons for voting, and convinced 80,000 to sign pledge cards promising to vote as well.
On Tuesday they’re following up with phone calls and personal visits.
“Without any relation to results, we already are making history,” says V15 employee Ayala Brilliant, staffing a tent in HaBima Square at the end of Rothschild. “People were too desperate for too long and we just woke them up.”
She says she feels far more optimistic than in 2013, when a victory by Mr. Netanyahu was seen as a foregone conclusion. He's seeking a fourth term as prime minister after calling last fall for early elections to be held after a falling out with his coalition partners.
In the final polls on Friday, the center-left Zionist Camp led by Labor party chief Isaac “Buji” Herzog and centrist Tzipi Livni was polling three or four seats ahead of the Likud, raising hopes among leftist voters who have been marginalized in Israeli politics since the second Palestinian intifada and the collapse of the peace process.
“When we saw momentum and there’s really a chance for a new way for this country, we decided to try to help Herzog as much as we can,” says a father from the suburb of Kiryat Ono, sitting on a picnic blanket with his wife and two young children. Still, he warns, “I’m pretty sure Bibi [Netanyahu] is going to win.”
Some still have faith in Bibi
Even if the Zionist Camp wins more parliamentary seats than Likud, it could still be hard pressed to find enough coalition partners to form a government with a majority of the Knesset’s 120 seats.
And there are still plenty of Bibi supporters, even in this stronghold of leftists.
“There’s a serious threat [to Israel]. We haven’t been in this situation since the Kippur War [in 1973],” says Ran Ohayon. He had planned to vote for Yair Lapid’s centrist Yesh Atid party until someone pointed out to him all the crises that Netanyahu has led the country through, including the global economic downturn and the rise of Islamic State.
“We can’t take out the leaders that led this ship the last few years,” he says.
He’s critical of “Internet kids” who want everything now, as well as leftist “flower” people. Others too, worry that the left is naïve, particularly when it comes to Israel’s Arab neighbors.
“I think the left sees things through the [smoke] rings of a joint,” says an English teacher named Tehlia.
A centrist kingmaker?
While the two main parties are perhaps farthest apart on the Palestinian issue, domestic issues like skyrocketing housing prices and expensive groceries appear far more pressing for many voters than Israel’s perennial geopolitical challenges.
That’s drawn voters to former Likudnik Moshe Kahlon’s Kulanu party (nine Knesset seats in the polls), which could enable the former telecommunications and welfare minister to be the kingmaker for a center-left or right-wing government.
“What’s going on outside, it’s always been going on and it always will be going on,” says Tomer, a civil engineer from Haifa who is voting for Mr. Kahlon, referring to Israel’s diplomatic and strategic challenges. “It’s time to start healing the country.”
Ronili, the mother pushing her son on the swing, says she knows many people who voted for Netanyahu in the previous election and are going with Herzog’s Zionist Camp this time.
“I think people are quite desperate and understand we’re going to a dead-end road, and this is the alternative,” she says. Then she picks up her son and tells him, “Let’s go to the beach!”