Page last updated at 04:10 GMT, Wednesday, 11 February 2009

Highs and lows of election drama

By Heather Sharp
BBC News, Tel Aviv

Mordechai Efrach, 41, Kadima supporter
Mordechai Efrach bounced up and down to the catchy song Livni Girl

The cleaners were starting to sweep an emptying floor at Likud's gathering, even as Kadima crowds cheered while waiting for their leader Tzipi Livni to speak.

"Bibi got it in the face," was one translation of the Hebrew slang they chanted in gleeful reference to their surprise turnaround over Benjamin Netanyahu's party.

The fact that Kadima was leading by only about 1% as the partial results came in did little to dampen the spirits of the party faithful, many clad in "Don't worry - Believni" T-shirts.

Jubilant supporters kept piling into the glitzy hotel, hugging friends as Kadima's theme song, a souped-up version of Israel's national anthem, thumped over the loudspeakers.

Evi Atar Sadon, 25, said he had jumped into his car and driven through storm-lashed streets from the southern town of Ashkelon as soon as he saw the first exit polls.

"We don't feel the rain, we feel the heat - love is in the air," he said


There was anxiety, though, with Kadima leading by only one or two seats.

"I'm a little bit nervous, I want to be sure she wins," said Nira Ben Ozer, 29, a Tel Aviv television producer who had left a drinking session in a local bar to "be part of it all".

Alon Haddad, Likud supporter
We must demonstrate that we are happy... as if we had won"
Alon Hadad
Likud supporter

And, try as they might to suggest they were confident all along, many Livni fans were surprised to find Kadima had confounded the pollsters, who had shown the party trailing Likud for months.

Mordechai Efrach, 41, was bouncing up and down to "Livni boy" - a catchy answer to the "Obama girl" song from the recent US presidential campaign - with an Israeli flag in his hand and a wide grin on his face.

"Of course!" he exclaimed, when asked if he had expected the result - and then burst into giggles, suggesting the complete opposite.

The Kadima crowd booed as Mr Netanyahu was shown on screens addressing his supporters in a draughty hangar across town.

"With God's help, I will lead the next government," he announced on the basis of the dominance of right-wing parties in the results, as his audience cheered.

'Confusing and disappointing'

But emotions were mixed among the Likud supporters, at a gathering that was subdued from the beginning as rumours spread that Kadima had performed better than predicted.

Likud supporters Rami (r) and Sali (l)
Rami (r) and Sali watched glumly as the first exit polls came through
Party activists were outnumbered by journalists. There were no Likud flags, few party T-shirts and little music.

As the first exit polls came through, party activist Rami - who gave only his first name - took a deep breath, exchanged glances with his friend Sali, then stared glumly back at the screen as the bar graphs flashed up, 30 seats for Kadima, 28 for Likud.

"It's very confusing, and very disappointing," he said.

As television pictures of Kadima jubilation were projected overhead, a small mob of young men surged around Mr Netanyahu, shouting "Bibi, bibi, bibi - we don't trust anyone but Bibi".

But many of the predominantly male supporters stood stony faced, not bothering to jostle with the TV cameras for a glimpse of their leader.

"I'm very, very, very, very unhappy," said chef Gil Afredo, 34, his face a picture of his disappointment. "I don't know what Bibi's mistake was."

But bank employee Alon Hadad, 33, still seemed genuinely excited.

"I feel very good," he said. "I think the right wing won the election, Tzipi Livni can't form a coalition."

"We must demonstrate that we are happy," he added, jumping up and down.

'Very grey'

Others were more cautious in their optimism. But they believed too that even if Ms Livni had won slightly more seats, Mr Netanyahu would end up prime minister as he was better placed to form a government.

"It's very grey," said party activist Raphael Cohen by phone from the Likud gathering, three hours later, as the partial results began to confirm the exit polls:

"People don't know whether to be happy or sad - we think the gap is small. I definitely believe there is still hope."

Nira Ben Ozer, 29 (left) and her friend
Nira Ben Ozer (l) and her friend left a night out in a bar to join the party
Finally, after a fairly significant delay - was she getting cold feet about declaring victory? - Ms Livni strode onto the stage to greet her supporters.

She was met with rapturous applause, a sea of Israeli flags, and had to wait for chants of "Kadima, Kadima" and "Tzipi Livni, Tzipi Livni" to subside before she could continue with her speech.

Composed and confident, she delivered a clear message - the Israeli people had chosen Kadima, she would be the leader of a unity government, she would forge ahead with a new type of politics.

When it was over, as the hall emptied, Alon Van Dam, 26, one of Likud's paid campaigners said he was "elated".

Really, given the uncertainties? "Well, my first reaction is to be elated, but I have to follow with cautious optimism," came the response. "It will be a process, forming the government."

And so the flags were furled, the taxis called and supporters spilled out into the blustery street.

They know they face a global economic crisis, Israel's persistent, unsolved security issues and - despite their celebrations - a conflict between two would-be prime ministers.

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