A Zionist Union party supporter reacts after hearing exit poll results in Tel Aviv on Tuesday. (Baz Ratner/Reuters)

Wearing blue Zionist Union T-shirts and chanting “It's a revolution,” supporters of Isaac Herzog, the main challenger to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, tried their best to keep the celebrations going early Wednesday morning.

But when exit polls showed the two parties neck and neck, hope quickly turned to disappointment. Later, as final results made clear that Netanyahu’s rightist Likud party had trounced the center-left Zionist Union, it turned to outright despair.

“Last night, I went to bed sad but hopeful, but this morning I woke up to a nightmare,” said Gaby Shine, who said she voted for the Zionist Union only to block Netanyahu and his party from winning.

“I was so desperate to get him out of the government,” she said. “Now, I am just incredibly sad that the people in this country voted for a leader who used the fear of Arab citizens voting as a way to gain support.”

Shine was referring to Netanyahu’s warning Tuesday, as Israelis went to the polls, that “right-wing rule is in danger, because Arab voters are streaming in droves to the polling stations.”

Zionist Union supporters said Wednesday that they think it was this and other nationalistic comments — including Netanyahu’s pronouncement in an interview Monday that no Palestinian state would be created as long as he is prime minister — that brought the hawkish leader’s party a last-minute flurry of votes and won him reelection.

But such comments have served only to polarize the electorate, with those who did not vote for Netanyahu Tuesday decrying yet another term under his leadership and some even joking in despair that it is time to leave the country before he brings real disaster to Israel.

“Netanyahu deserves the Israeli people, and they deserve him,” columnist Gideon Levy wrote in the left-leaning daily Haaretz. “The results are indicative of the direction the country is headed: A significant proportion of Israelis has finally grown detached from reality. This is the result of years’ worth of brainwashing and incitement.”

He suggested that it was the nation that needed replacing, not the leadership.

Jerusalem resident Ido Stossel, who campaigned for the Zionist Union — led by Labor party head Herzog — said it was upsetting that the party had been “defeated by a campaign of incitement and racism that will bring us an extreme right-wing government.”

Stossel was among those who had shown up to celebrate the Zionist Union’s predicted election win. He said that those gathered at a Tel Aviv sports-hall-turned-party-headquarters started having doubts about the victory almost as soon as polling stations closed Tuesday night and data from exit polls filled the big television screens.

“There was a mixture of feelings. On the one hand, exit polls gave us 27 [parliamentary seats], more than the opinion polls had predicted, but on the other hand, something was not right, because the Likud was being given the same amount,” Stossel said.

Just after midnight, before the final results were clear, Herzog addressed his supporters, praising what appeared to be a historic achievement and offering them hope.

“These results could allow us to return to the government. We are still waiting for the real results, but everything is open,” he said.

But as dawn broke over this Mediterranean city and voting slips were tallied, it quickly became clear that the landslide Herzog and his supporters had been expecting had been handed to Netanyahu.

By morning, Herzog had conceded defeat.

“Netanyahu managed to frighten the Israeli public,” said Oren Pasternack, another Zionist Union activist from Tel Aviv.

Pasternack, though, said that a breakdown of votes shows the Israeli parliament is split almost equally between the left and right blocs. Netanyahu’s final tactic, he noted, was taking supporters away from other right-wing parties to ensure that Likud gained a larger, more secure lead over the Zionist Union.

“Of course, we wanted to win and bring change and hope in a social way to the Israeli people and bring peace to the region in general,” Pasternack said.

“I guess now we have no choice but to be in the opposition until the next election, which will probably be in another year or two,” he said, “and then we will be in a better position to win.”