Israel: The victory party that wasn’t

September 18, 2008

livni2.jpgHundreds of supporters and reporters waited for hours overnight at a banner-festooned hangar-like building in
Tel Aviv for a victory speech that never materialised from the ruling Kadima party’s newly elected leader, Tzipi Livni.

There was a lot for the party faithful to celebrate, a new Israeli leader, and the first woman to potentially become the country’s prime minister since Golda Meir in the 1970’s.

True, the Kadima party victory wasn’t enough to definitively crown Livni, 50, prime minister. Livni now foreign minister still faces the hurdle of forging a new government with fractious political parties, and still won’t get a mandate to do even that until scandal-struck Prime Minister Ehud Olmert carries out his pledge to resign.

But these weren’t the only reasons why the former member of Israel’s Mossad espionage agency delayed her victory speech last night.

The real problem was that Israeli television exit polls had predicted a wide victory for Livni over her closest contender, Deputy Prime Minister Shaul Mofaz, a tough-minded ex-general. Yet the projected 10 point margin turned out to be barely more than one percentage point — or a mere 431 votes — once the votes were actually counted, turning what was supposed to be a celebration into a marathon somewhat resembling the plot of Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot.”

As the hours dragged on, Livni’s campaign spokesman, Moshe Konforty, kept insisting she would show up but was only waiting until a significant number of votes had been counted, enough to prove she had won the election not just by the exit polls. What they didn’t reveal for quite a while was that the results were so close between Livni and Mofaz, that her victory was actually in question — despite the fact that Israeli radio stations had broadcast her declaring her victory in a call to supporters many hours earlier.

Reporters and supporters alike had been misled by projectors that beamed what turned out to be inconclusive results on a screen set next to what remained an empty stage, showing a town by town breakdown of the vote that indicated Livni had won in most districts by at least five percent. The real result was that Livni had won just 431 votes more than Mofaz of approximately 38,000 votes cast.

Official Kadima spokesmen, busy behind closed doors overseeing the counting of the ballots, made no comment for hours as to why it was taking so long to publish final results.

Bored by the anti-climactic atmosphere, young women hoping to see the nation’s first female leader in decades from up close, settled for picking out carnations from the flower arrangements on a lonely stage.

The uncertainty was so vexing that some Livni supporters kept coming over to myself and correspondent Ari Rabinovitch, convinced that our laptop sitting just opposite the screen where results were being projected had to contain more of the mysterious voting results.

 The chaos was rather typical of Israeli internal party elections, where contests tend to be closely fought between sworn rival camps. The acrimony between Livni’s followers and those of Mofaz, who alleged voting “irregularities” tilted the vote in her favour, was reminiscent of the political battles fought by Kadima’s founder, former prime minister Ariel Sharon against former rivals in the rightist Likud party that he bolted three years ago in a dispute over his Gaza withdrawal.

 In 1992, a narrow margin of victory in a party vote had also delayed Shimon Peres, now Israel’s president and a former head of the leftist Labour party, from conceding to the late Yitzhak Rabin in a closely fought primary.

But Rabin who went on to some historic peacemaking with Palestinians, did eventually give his victory speech that night, unlike Livni, who only got to issue a bland statement the morning after, long after bleary-eyed supporters had given up waiting for a party that wasn’t to pass, and gone home.

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