What was billed last November as the "Big Bang" of Israeli politics turned out Tuesday night to be a "Medium Pop" as Kadima - according to the exit polls - captured between 29 to 32 Knesset seats.
Acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who now faces the difficult task of putting together a workable coalition, had not appeared at Kadima's election night headquarters at the Golan/Globus studios in Neveh Ilan by 1 a.m. Olmert's aide said earlier in the day that he had only prepared only one speech, a victory speech.
Although Kadima activists at the scene tried to put on a "happy face," it was apparent that the party's dream of creating a critical mass of some 40 or more seats that could singlehandedly set the country's agenda has fallen short.
Nevertheless, the surprising success of the Pensioners' Party gave Olmert a number of different coalition options from which to choose.
Before the network broadcast their exit polls, Kadima strategist Lior Horev told The Jerusalem Post that anything over 33 seats would be considered a victory, and anything under 32 would be considered a defeat.
By midnight, the party was dancing on the border.
Isaac Ben-Israel, 31 on Kadima's list, admitted that the numbers were "disappointing." "Still, we are the biggest party and we'll form the government," he said. He added, however, that the way the political map was shaping up would make forming a coalition "harder than we had expected."
Ben-Israel said that he knew nothing about the Pensioners' Party's diplomatic and security platform, and said he didn't know if they even had one. He explained the success of this party by saying that many people didn't know who to vote for, and voted for them "because they seemed nice."
Ben-Israel said that he knew their list leader, Rafi Eitan, and that he was a close friend of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. Ben-Israel could not, however, name anyone else on the list that would surely be a key factor in Olmert's coalition population.
After the initial exit polls were broadcast, Horev struggled to put a positive spin on the numbers that fell below what he himself had set as a benchmark for victory and defeat.
"I believe we made history tonight," he said. "I believe we saw a total change in Israeli politics. I don't think that six months ago anyone would have thought we would have come so far. One thing is clear, Kadima will lead Israel for the next four years."
Horev said that the results show that "the people of Israel want a sane government. The extremists in Israeli politics lost tonight, the Likud and Binyamin Netanyahu," he said.
Regarding the strong showing of Israel Beiteinu, Horev said that Avigdor Lieberman received votes from people who wanted to vote for the right but simply could not vote for Likud.
As to whether Kadima would want to take Israel Beiteinu as a coalition partner, Horev said that Lieberman "had to decide whether he wants to be a minister or stay on the extreme right."
Yohanan Pelsner, No. 32 on Kadima's list, echoed the party's sentiments that it was too early to enter into coalition calculations. But he said Olmert had clearly defined what his foreign policy and security goals were, and "we will do out utmost to reach them."
One aide to Olmert said that Tuesday night marked "the beginning of a political realignment in Israel. We hoped it could be done in one night, but now we will have to wait for another election to see it completely unfold," he said.
Whereas other parties had halls filled with party activists to watch the initial exit polls return, the Kadima affair at the Golan/Globus studio was strictly for the press. Horev denied that this was a reflection of a party without an abundance of fired-up activists, and said Kadima simply wanted to keep its volunteers out in the field to bring out the vote as late as possible. Horev said that some 500 activists would arrive at about 1 a.m.
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