Friday night in Jaffa, and it’s a party. Jaffa, to the south of Tel Aviv, is where the cool kids hang, apparently — think Dalston or the meatpacking district, and add radical chic. An Israeli-Russian dude in big ironic spectacles tells me that, not far from here, they filmed scenes for the second season of Homeland. ‘So you can see how edgy it is,’ he says. He’s being sarcastic.
We’re in a nice big two-floor apartment. The crowd is a mix of British foreign correspondents grumbling about their salaries, good-looking Israelis, and anguished Yanks competing to be more pro-Palestinian than each other. (‘Off the record — OK? — but Israel is effectively a terrorist state that is systematically oppressing an entire people.’) The election is next week, but it is not really the done thing to talk about it. To ask about the success of the Israeli right is to be met with a dumb stare. ‘Sorry, but I’m, like, so far to the left of Israeli politics I’m not even on the scale,’ says one American boy. He looks sad.
Upstairs on the balcony, is a friendly and rotund Armenian whose father is an opera singer. He wants to be a pop star. ‘You know Mika?’ he asks. ‘I like Mika. It’s cool.’ Downstairs, I’m introduced to a married gay couple. Husband 1, a Brit who represents Palestinians for the UN, tells me that his partner is Israeli and a ‘mad Zionist’. Husband 2 then tells me that the Jewish settlers are like a ‘cancer’ that can’t be stopped. ‘Zey breed and zey breed and breed.’ As if things weren’t strange enough, a PR girl for the Israel Defense Forces turns up. She has sexy eyes and angry red lips. Everybody is mean to her, some jokingly, some outright hostile. ‘The IDF bitch,’ they call her. One wants to sympathise, so I ask her about women in the military. She pulls an it-hurts-me-how-stupid-you-are face, and ignores the question. Towards the end, the hostess, who’s charming, says she wants to make a film about the funny life of foreign journalists in Israel. It’s a great idea.
To Jerusalem. I join the Britain-Israel Communications and Research Centre’s (Bicom) press delegation. On Monday, election eve, we meet Uzi Landau, the 70-year-old energy minister. Uzi is part of the right-wing Likud-Beiteinu, and hasn’t exactly softened with age. ‘I like to answer tough questions,’ he says. There are two large Israeli flags crossed behind him. He cautions Brits against raising unrealistic hopes among Palestinians and stresses the increasing threat to Israel following the popular uprisings of the Arab Spring. So is democracy the problem in the Arab world? ‘I don’t want to go into that.’
Back in Tel Aviv, we head to the offices of Hatnua, a new centre-left party set up seven weeks ago by Tzipi Livni, the popular centre-left figure. A hope-and-change vibe here: hot girls in jeans strutting about looking busy and confident. We talk to Knesset member Yoel Hasson. He starts by ripping into prime minister Netanyahu’s record. Since Netanyahu is sure to win, however, he adds that Hutnua will happily form a coalition with him. ‘I never vote for Netanyahu, but I appreciate him,’ he says. In walks Alon Tal, co-chair of the Green Movement, which has joined Tzipi’s late push. I ask him about reports that eco-conscious voters are mistakenly supporting the Green Leaf, an entirely separate pro-cannabis party. ‘It’s a problem,’ he admits, lips twitching. ‘But it’s sad, when we have all these important issues, that’s what you want to talk about.’
Next, we go to a seafront restaurant to meet Avishay Braverman, a former World Bank man and minister, who is a Knesset member for the Labor party these days. He’s charming, passionate, and a bit of a name-dropper. ‘I like Tony [Blair] — he’s a friend of mine,’ he says. He orders bouillabaisse and red wine, and shouts about the political class, the crazy Israeli far right and the divided centre-left. ‘We have five parties! For what?’ He blames young people and Twitter.
Election night. A press event hosted by the Israel Project. The canapés are good. We hear whispers, via (ahem) Twitter, of a big shock. Sure enough, the first exit poll shows that Yair Lapid, the good-looking TV star of the populist centre-ground, is the big story. He has won 19 seats, which will force Bibi to bring him and his Yesh Atid party into government. Some of the experts are convinced that this is great news for Israeli liberals. The Ultra-Orthodox and the Religious Zionists are in trouble, Netanyahu has been embarrassed, and Israel has proved it is not as crazily right-wing as the bien-pensant world thinks. Last’s week narrative: the rise of the far right can be junked. Phew! Others raise doubts: Lapid’s focus has been domestic — his position on the Palestinian issue is not altogether clear, Netanyahu can still form a nasty alliance with the Ultra-Orthodox, and who is sure that Lapid will amount to more than a handsome cipher? Outside, we meet a group of Likud boys in Kippahs and suits. They try to be cheerful, but they look glum.
On to a campaign party for Yesh Atid. It’s loud. There’s a media scrum around Lapid, the man of the hour. He looks unhappy, which is odd — maybe it’s because he’s being jostled into a car by security men. Inside, activists are banging drums, singing, and drinking Lambrusco. We catch a word with Yaakov Peri, who will be in the new Knesset with Yesh Atid. What does tonight mean for Israel, I ask pathetically. ‘Change,’ he replies. He doesn’t expand on the point.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated 26 January 2013