shalom silvan polling298.
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
The first media polls at 10 p.m. last night, showing Binyamin Netanyahu winning the Likud leadership struggle by a large margin, were greeted with shock in Silvan Shalom's headquarters in Tel Aviv.
During the day of primaries, the Shalom camp strongly believed they could score an upset victory. That was the feeling they were getting from their grassroots. Someone shouted out: "What are you worried about, it's just a poll." But the rest just looked speechless at the big screen.
"I just came from Kupat Holim where they told me that my medicine isn't on the free list," lamented Tzvi Weiss, a Ramat Gan pensioner waiting for the local polls to open. "Bibi took my medicine," he shouted. "Silvan is the only normal person left in the Likud, I've known ever since he was a football reporter 25 years ago."
Long before the first exit polls came out last night, one thing was clear in Shalom's camp: he had already won at least one major battle - the fabled shetah, the Likud's grassroots apparatus, was his. Stop after stop on his campaign trail, especially during his whirlwind tour of polling stations, he had the most people on the ground, the best organized supporters booths, the most exuberant fan groups and perhaps the most important component in a political battle; the enemy was clear in his sights.
Binyamin Netanyahu had become the all-purpose bogeyman, a focus point for resentment of voters who blamed him for their reduced benefit payments and for Likud activists who saw him as the man who "pushed" Prime Minister Ariel Sharon out of the party and caused the downfall in the polls.
Avshalom Danoch, head of Shalom's Ashkelon headquarters, admitted that "Netanyahu did a great job with the economy, but the inescapable fact is that people believe that he hurt them in their pocket."
In the absence of his former political ally Sharon, Shalom funneled all that anti-Bibi resentment into his campaign. His other main weapon was the intricate web of local loyalties that Shalom has been weaving incessantly in his 21 years in politics.
Shalom has two echelons of operatives. The first is the blazers, his suit-wearing advisors from the Foreign Ministry, his public face. The other is the local Likud mafia, wheeler-dealers on city councils, branch chairmen with nicotine-stained teeth, Egged union leaders - he has nurtured hundreds of these, knows their first-names and wives, and before every holiday and new year, summons them to a lavish get-together. On the primaries trail, they were all out in force.
There was also an considerable contingent of ex-Sharon activists in Shalom's camp. One of the better known of them, Shlomi Oz, formerly Omri Sharon's hatchet man, was feverishly calling Shalom operatives on his cellphone at the Ramat Gan poll. He deflected questions as to his real loyalties, "Bibi will leave the party anyway in a few months so I'm staying in the Likud. He's our greatest asset, the man people love to hate."
But Shalom's most loyal soldier on the trail is his wife Judy Shalom-Nir-Mozes. While Silvan walked into every polling station, at a statesman's gait, surrounded by a large entourage, Judy was darting around hugging pensioners, kissing supporters, eating a pita with falafel that someone handed her (Silvan handed his portion to one of his aides) and pouncing on every reporter around, offering colorful quotes.
One asked whether her husband wasn't going to join Sharon sooner or later. She answered, "Perhaps Arik will be his number two."
Sharon might have left the Likud but at least around Shalom, the prime minister's presence was felt. After voting in Ramat Gan, he spoke warmly to the foreign press about the hospitalized leader and said, "I hope he will return quickly to his post." Many of Shalom's supporters promised that if by the end of the night, Netanyahu would prove the victor, they would also defect to Kadima.
Benda Yair, head of Egged in Rehovot, said that if Shalom would lose, "We'll have a lot of new food for thought, but right now we're still in the Likud."
Yossef Da'aboul, Deputy Mayor of Rishon Lezion, said, "I think I'll leave if we lose. If Bibi takes the leadership, all the grassroots will go home."
Towards the end of the afternoon, Shalom began to look agitated when the news of the low voter turnout began coming in. His advisors had been saying throughout the day that they needed a large turnout to win. Aviva Fold, one of his local supporters who had been manning the phones, complained to Shalom, "Almost everyone I've called told me they're too depressed by what's happening to the party to vote. I promised them that if Silvan wins, he'll reunite us with Sharon."