Israelis want politics "free of incitement and hatred," Prime Minister Yair Lapid said as he spoke to his supporters at his campaign headquarters in Tel Aviv at 1:30 a.m. Wednesday, as the country, waited to see if the real vote count would confirm his loss or grant him a surprise victory.
Exit polls taken just as the polls closed on Tuesday, showed that right-wing parties had received enough votes to allow Likud party head Benjamin Netanyahu to form a government of 61 or 62 seats.
Those same exit polls predicted that the far-right Religious Zionist Party headed by Bezalel Smotrich (RZP) would have the third-highest number of seats.
RZP supporters sang and danced with joy upon hearing the results. They also interrupted the speech given by the RZP's second-in-command, Itamar Ben-Gvir's speech with shouts of "death to terrorists."
A commentator on KAN News noted that this was code for "death to Arabs."
Lapid told his supporters that his party represented a different path.
"Every Israeli citizen - religious or secular, leftist or rightist, Jewish or Arab, straight or LGBTQ+ - should know tonight that we will continue to fight for Israel to be a Jewish, democratic, liberal and progressive state," said Lapid.
He cautioned against reaching premature conclusions about the results, until the real votes had been counted, a process that could take a day or two.
Based on his party's count, Lapid said, he believed that a million voters had cast ballots for his party, which grew without harming its potential coalition partners.
"A million Israeli citizens went to the polls and said, I can be both Jewish and Israeli. I can be both nationalist and liberal.
"A million citizens went to the polls and said they believe in the future and the power of change," Lapid said.
One of the pillar points of this change is the principled position to fight for all sectors of society, he said, adding that "we do not want to leave anyone behind," he said.
Lapid reflected on the government put in place in 2021 that had lead first by his predecessor Naftali Bennett and which he has headed since July.
"We established a government that did everything to lower the cost of living and was not afraid to act against our enemies.
"One that above all understood that the government's role was to heal the wounds of Israeli society. We have no intention of stopping," Lapid said.
The change his party is leading is "inevitable," Lapid said. "You can delay it, but you can't stop it."
Lapid ended by telling his supporters, "I am proud of you and I love you."
Until Lapid's arrival, the hall at Tel Aviv's Expo center remained fairly empty, filled only with journalists.
At 10 p.m., when the polls closed, screenshots from Israel’s three main television stations were displayed on the auditorium’s back wall.
They flashed exit poll data, but the stage itself, set up with a microphone and a podium, was empty.
Lapid had never been expected to beat Netanyahu. Exit polls confirmed what pre-election polls had shown: that he would be the second-largest party.
His hope had rested on receiving just enough votes to ensure that Netanyahu would be unable to form a coalition, thereby opening the door for him to build a government.
In the flush of the initial results, it seemed unlikely that this would occur.
Lapid, who was thrust into office in July when the Bennett lead government fell, had little time to make his mark. Circumstances gave his campaign a diplomatic boost, which began with US President Joe Biden’s visit to Israel in July and ended in October with the signing of a historic gas deal with Lebanon, a state with whom Israel has no diplomatic relations.
But on Tuesday, when chilly fall weather set in under a mostly sunny sky, it was all about getting out the vote.
Even as late as 9:43 p.m., with only 17 minutes left to go until the polls closed, Lapid sent out a message to voters, telling them, “Every vote counts.”
He instructed them to stay at the polls if they had arrived before 10 p.m., explaining that they would be given a chance to vote.
Lapid began his day with a solemn moment at the grave of his father, Tommy Lapid (1931-2008). He wore a blue suit and in an unusual display of piety, a black skullcap on his gray hair.
His father, a Holocaust survivor, had been a journalist and politician who had created and led the former Shinui Party and served as deputy prime minister from 2003-2004.
“His whole life my father told me, ‘Remember that the greatest miracle that happened to us is that the Jews have their own state,’” Lapid said. “I promised him this morning that we would continue to work hard to ensure this miracle’s future.”
Then, with the skull cap no longer on his head, he voted with his wife, Lihi, at the polling station in Tel Aviv’s Gimel School, in the Ramat Aviv neighborhood.
“Vote wisely. Vote for the State of Israel, children’s future and our future in general,” he told those who had come to see him cast his ballot.
He would continue to repeat the message about Israel’s future on the campaign trail throughout the day.
The last polls taken prior to the election showed that the country stood at a crossroads between a right-wing or Center-Left government and that only a small number of votes would determine the nation’s fate.
Lapid hammered that point home at every stop, explaining that the results were closed and urging everyone to vote.
These elections are about closing between the past and the future, Lapid said as he urged people to vote.
The name of the party itself, Yesh Atid, means “there is a future.” At campaign stops, he was greeted with chants from supporters stating, “We are ready for change.”