Israelis Find Humor in Undecided Election

It may be a comedy show, but for a tense moment backstage on Tuesday night, nobody was laughing. A concerned-looking woman wearing a headset and clutching a dog-eared script rushed through the wings and muttered, "We may have a problem." The show's host swept past and declared: "The exit polls show Tzipi is up!" The crisis: the program's writers had scripted several versions of their key scene—a sketch lampooning Israel's candidates for prime minister. But Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni had been such a long-shot to win that nobody had bothered to write a version with her coming out ahead. Now that the polls had closed, Livni was leading her main rival, Benjamin (Bibi) Netanyahu, by a slim margin. Sipping vodkas and looking nonplussed, the show's writers raced to scribble out a hasty revision before the stage lights came up.

You can always hear the truth about a society in the jokes, Richard Ben Cramer has observed, and this week Israel was a society in mild chaos. Israeli elections are famously unpredictable, but even by local standards this contest has been a bizarre one. Thirty-three separate and often miniscule parties—including one dedicated exclusively to Holocaust survivors who favor marijuana legalization—vied for seats in Parliament. Netanyahu, head of the hawkish Likud Party, had been leading by a wide margin for several months in most polls. But the Gaza war and a last-minute surge by ultranationalist Avigdor Lieberman chipped away at his support. As of Wednesday afternoon, with 99 percent of the votes counted, Livni's party led Netanyahu's by a single Knesset seat. Even that outcome heralds more uncertainty: Since right-wing parties outnumber the leftists, it is far from clear whether Livni can form a governing coalition.

In the meantime, Israelis can only laugh at their predicament. Nearly 900,000 people—a huge number in a country of 7 million—tuned in to watch the election episode of "Wonderful Country," Israel's version of "Saturday Night Live." The show's actors insist they aim to be politically neutral, but the young studio audience had clear preferences—a portent, perhaps, of the final election results. Warming them up before the show, one of the actors asked the crowd: "Who voted for Bibi?" Silence. "Don't be embarrassed," he continued. "He'll win in the end." Mention of hard-liner Avigdor Lieberman's name drew a few lusty whistles from the back of the crowd. "Don't be so enthusiastic," the warm-up man needled. "That's s---." Only when he called out Livni's name did the audience sprout with dozens of raised hands.

Just a few months ago, Livni's political prospects seemed to be fading. After Prime Minister Ehud Olmert announced his resignation this past fall, Livni failed to cobble together a governing majority, essentially making the election Netanyahu's to lose. Yet once the guns fell silent in Gaza, Livni's campaign slowly gathered momentum; in the last few weeks, the foreign minister's raucus crowds were sporting trendy T shirts silk-screened with the slogan BELIEVENI. Orna Banai, the actress who plays Livni on "Wonderful Country," says she's had to adjust her impression as Livni has refined her public persona. "Two years ago she was so different," says Banai. "She was lacking in confidence then, she would hesitate more. It's much more fun now—she's stronger, she's more interesting." Banai said she hoped Livni would ultimately take over as P.M., but didn't seem very confident about that outcome. "Israelis are masochists," she concluded.

Tuesday was a rough night for Netanyahu, but Mariano Edelman, the actor who plays Bibi, insisted that it's too early to count out the former prime minister. "Even if you don't believe in his platform, the guy's a genius," he said, fiddling with the gray combover wig plastered to his scalp. "He's a master of public communication. He knows how to act with his eyes, with his smile." Still, Edelman acknowledged that Israelis see something slightly louche in Bibi's character. The key to an accurate impersonation, he explained, is "to be a little conceited—to be a ladies man." The actor cocked his head and twisted his face into a smarmy grin.

The night's scene-stealer, though, was the show's impression of Avigdor Lieberman, the hawkish Russian émigré whose Israel Beitenu Party captured 15 Knesset seats—enough to make him a kingmaker, and probably the next defense minister. The hard-liner, who opposes coexistence with Israel's Arab population, was parodied as a fascist autocrat; he made his entrance to the death-march theme from "Star Wars," riding atop a black Humvee, wearing black leather, packing a handgun, and flanked by black-clad bodyguards leading big black dogs. The populist's rise is a genuinely troubling development for Israel's doves, including many of those in the studio audience. But for an hour on Tuesday night, at least, there was nothing to be done about the situation except to laugh.