kadima HQ reaction election 248.88.
(photo credit: AP)
The outer wall at Kadima headquarters in Petah Tikva's industrial zone is still adorned with a very large poster of the party's founder, Ariel Sharon, but that could change soon.
Inside the bustling building on Tuesday, the Sharon poster hung across the main office room where dozens of party activists were working the phones on Election Day, checking in with their counterparts in the field at polling booths countrywide.
Across the wall is an election poster with Sharon on one side and Kadima's new leader, Tzipi Livni, on the other.
Outgoing Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has been wiped out of Kadima's literature and PR material.
The party that started with Sharon's "big bang" and struggled through a sex scandal and corruption investigation, as well as failed and unfinished wars, has somehow emerged stronger that it was when Olmert took charge of the party in 2006.
The victory party started surreptitiously, moments before the exit polls were broadcast on the three TV channels at 10 p.m.
Kadima's chief strategists, who apparently knew the poll results at 8 p.m., stalked each other out across the packed hall at the David Intercontinental Hotel in Tel Aviv, where Kadima had set up its election night gathering.
The strategists crashed straight into each other, embracing for long moments as others looked on, and caught on quickly.
As exit polls were broadcast on giant TV screens, showing Kadima beating Likud by two seats, hundreds of Kadima activists and supporters broke into song and dance, declaring Tzipi Livni "the next prime minister."
"We fought a campaign against everyone: the Likud, Labor, Israel Beitenu, Shas, everyone. Kadima was eulogized by everyone, and for months Binyamin Netanyahu was considered a shoo-in for prime minister," said Lior Chorev, one of Kadima's chief campaign managers. "Kadima is stronger now than it was when it took part in its first election,"
Their cautious optimism throughout the day vindicated, Kadima Knesset members and officials felt confident enough to reject claims that their victory was Pyrrhic, and that despite a two or three mandate lead over Likud, Netanyahu would still have the best chance to form a coalition due to the size of the right-wing bloc, which currently stands at 64, as opposed to the center-left bloc of 56.
The MKs emphasized that Kadima was a centrist party, with a strong right-wing element, and that the breakdown of the two voting blocs was not as clear cut as the Likud was declaring it to be.
Looking for ways to overcome the talk of an empty election victory, Nachman Shai, number 18 on the Kadima list for the Knesset, told The Jerusalem Post that Kadima was a party that supported a two-state solution and would accept any party into its coalition who proscribed to that solution, even ultra-nationalist Avigdor Lieberman's Israel Beitenu party.
"Lieberman is a very practical and pragmatic politician," Shai told the Post. "We can include him in the coalition. He has shown in the past that he can be pragmatic."
Even with the two-seat victory over the Likud, Livni would have a difficult time forming a coalition if she is chosen to do so by President Shimon Peres.
Throughout the day, thousands of Kadima activists across the country reported a surge in voters for Livni.
Despite the fact that Sharon's aura still dominates at Kadima headquarters, there is no question here that only Livni could have brought the party to its present level of success.
Up until Election Day 2009, Livni had still not conquered Kadima, and Kadima had still not fully embraced Livni.
Party officials said that as of next week, chances are Sharon's poster outside will be removed, and one of Livni hoisted in its place.
Reflecting the dramatic turnaround in its fortunes over the past few weeks with the constant narrowing of the gap between Kadima and Likud, the mood at the party headquarters was optimistic, even jubilant at times.
A large, flat TV screen counted down the hours, minutes and seconds "until the great victory." Party officials predicted throughout the day that were Livni to pull off a surprise win, it would be one of the most dramatic come-from-behind election victories in Israeli history.
The election result shows, once again, "that Bibi is a loser, that he had the election in the bag, but that he choked at the final leg," a Kadima campaign official said.
The close race, especially on Election Day, helped Kadima, campaign officials said, because people felt they could affect a change; that their vote would actually count for something, that "Bibi could be beaten."
Knesset Speaker Dalia Itzik's mantra throughout the day was that everywhere she went, she noticed a "wave of anti-Bibi-ism."
Old people were voting Kadima and telling Itzik "He [Bibi] took away my pension," she said, adding, "I feel that people are excited they're taking part in something historic. I've got a feeling we're going to win it today."
This was Kadima's message over the past two weeks, and it was intensified throughout Tuesday. "The world cannot accept a too-right wing government in Israel, a government of stagnation and confrontation. This kind of government won't last," Internal Security Minister and Kadima's campaign chief, Avi Dichter, told the Post.
The party headquarters crawled with paid activists, officials and volunteers, among them a large number of women. All through the day, "word was coming through" of a swell of voters who said they were voting Kadima.
The party's 7,000 monitors and activists spread across the country were reporting a high turnout and very few problems.
As the optimism grew, there were some Kadima officials who tried to rationalize away the fact that the right-wing bloc's strength, assessed to be at some 65 Knesset seats, would naturally give Netanyahu a better chance of forming the next government.
Kadima officials believed that if the party won the election and became the largest party, it should be given a chance to form the new government, rather than the party with "the best chance" of scraping together a coalition, as is proscribed in the law.
Livni herself expressed this sentiment when she said, "Whoever gets more mandates has received the trust of the public. We represent the center [of the political spectrum] and only we can form a truly national unity government by combining the Left and Right. There is no question of this."
Dichter emphasized the optimism in the party when he welcomed Livni on Tuesday, with the words, "Welcome Mrs. Prime Minister. We need to all get used to that."
"This is less a political event and more of a social movement for change," Livni said, drawing parallels with the recent campaign of US President Barack Obama. "This is a new movement. We haven't been around for decades. And you've done it."