netanyahu clasps hands.
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
It was five minutes to go before the polls closed at 10 p.m. and MK Binyamin Netanyahu's spokesman Ophir Akunis took his first easy breath of the day. A smile broke across his face.
Looking at him, volunteer Esti Akamon yelled out, "Is it true? Bibi won!"
Within minutes, the first results of a poll giving Netanyahu a clear lead over the other three contenders in the Likud leadership race flashed across a television screen. Immediately, volunteers who had spent the day manning the polls at Netanyahu's headquarters in Tel Aviv, swaying party members to vote, hugged each other and burst out screaming.
"Bibi is good for Israel!" they shouted.
Akunis held up both his hands in a thumbs up signal. "It's fantastic," he said, dropping his hands to hold up first one, and then two cell phones to his ears.
MK Yuval Steinitz (Likud) said it was "a wonderful evening for the Likud." Netanyahu's victory returns the party to its natural leadership position, he said. With Netanyahu at the party's helm, the Likud can pursue peace but stand for security, he said.
MK Michael Ratzon (Likud) said that among the options before Netanyahu is the possibility of putting together a list of 61 MKs, a move that would delay the the elections for prime minister and the Knesset.
Steinitz thanked the voters who came out to vote in spite of the turmoil in the party which came after Prime Minister Ariel Sharon departed to form Kadima.
Throughout the day, volunteers and paid professionals flanked by Netanyahu signs sat in a Tel Aviv high-rise phoning voters.
Up until minutes before the polls closed, they sat by makeshift tables filled with phones, computers, half-eaten sandwiches and water bottles. They poured over lists of names, calling party members to check if they had voted.
"Hello Haim, have you voted?" one volunteer asked. "What poll are you near?"
She looked on a map for a moment and then spoke to Haim again. "You can still make it," she said. When he seemed to doubt that he could, the volunteer called out: "Can we still provide rides?"
"Do your best," volunteer Shosh Alfasi told the voter on the other end of the phone.
"I've been doing this for years," the seventy-one-year old said, adding she first began working in support of Netanyahu in 1984. "He's knowledgeable, he knows what he is doing, he's the pride of the party," she said.
Menny Deutsch, 22, of Tel Aviv, said he has been working for Netanyahu for the last three weeks. "It's my national responsibility," he said. Deutsch gave Netanyahu credit for his economic policies and said that in the past years the former prime minister put in place policies which others took credit for. "I hope that this time he can reap the fruits of his labor," he said.
Former MK Natan Sharansky also came to Netanyahu's headquarters to show his support.
He told The Jerusalem Post he had forgiven Netanyahu for not initially opposing disengagement and spent the last month working on his behalf. "When it comes to who can lead the movement and the country, Netanyahu is the best choice. He's a popular leader with a good platform," Sharansky said.