The race for mayor of the city of Beit Shemesh is ground zero in the bruising
national battle between Shas and Bayit Yehudi chairman Naftali Bennett. Shas
backs the incumbent, while Bennett fielded a religious female candidate months
after others announced their candidacies.
Shortly into her campaign,
Bennett switched allegiance, backing Eli Cohen and leaving Bennett’s candidate
to slowly twist in the wind.
Cohen is the only candidate with enough
local support to “unite the Zionist camp” and unseat self-proclaimed haredi-Shas
Mayor Moshe Abutbol, according to Bennett and others.
took hold quickly, pushing other candidates to drop out. Cohen is running as an
independent, though his lifetime affiliation is with Likud. He is a traditional
but secular Jew of Sephardi heritage, with government and business management
experience. He is articulate, with a proactive economic and social agenda
dedicated to unifying haredim (ultra-Orthodox), modern Orthodox and secular
Jews, who have coexisted in the city for nearly three decades. He is passionate
about improving living conditions for the Ethiopians in Beit Shemesh. He does
not want to see the city divided, legally or religious-wise.
Abutbol does not lack for supporters. They characterize his administration as
progressive and dedicated to growth and development.
There are new parks
and schools, housing construction, expanding social services, improved public
transportation including a new major thoroughfare, reasonable taxes, new malls,
and the mayor is accessible.
Some vociferous critics of Mayor Abutbol
claim his haredi favoritism inflames tensions and empowers extremists. His
deputy mayor is quoted as saying, “It is superfluous to call [riots by some]
destructive and damaging,” referring specifically to attacks on three public
buses when a driver of one bus called the police after a haredi couple asked a
female passenger to move to the back. Supporters claim Beit Shemesh is a
traditional city that loves and respects religion, and that the mayor’s only
“sin” in the eyes of his opponents is that he wears a kippa.
opponents, on the other hand, say the issue is his deafening silence regarding
physical attacks over the years, which have sullied the good name of the city.
When a few haredi extremists acted like thugs, international headlines forced
national ministers to enforce peace in the city. This attitude, they argue, is
discouraging young religious and secular families, other than some olim, to
reside in the city; it is already “too black,” i.e. dominated by
The larger issue at stake is that Shas boss Arye Deri might
decide to enshrine Abutbol as ruler of the realm, supplying hardball public
support and a war chest for Abutbol’s campaign. Many Cohen supporters
characterize Bennett casting aside his own candidate as sleazy and
untrustworthy, and they want Cohen to distance his campaign from
Bennett, appearing disorganized and weak at the knees after
jilting his own candidate, might spark Deri to take his and Bennett’s scabrous
and edacious national brawl down into the trenches of local politics. Deri can
flex his muscles, demonstrate his genius, political skill, iron will and
tenacity by defeating Bennett’s new choice for mayor.
Bennett himself has
a lot is at stake.
He must build a political party from the ground up, in
order to win future elections. He rode the coattails into office of a nation
tired of being pushed around by the Europeans and US President Barack Obama.
Bennett promised no land compromises without real peace, no carte blanche
Palestinian prisoner release, and a meaningful draft of haredim into the IDF,
the integration of haredim into the workforce, reform of Israeli bureaucracy,
and a return to modern Orthodox religious leadership in the offices of the Chief
Rabbinate. Essentially, everything many Israelis wanted to hear. However, he has
fulfilled few if any campaign promises and his rhetoric is sounding hoary and
Shas leaders and sympathizers torrefy Bennett as a poltroon and
His sobriquet is “Amalek,” a vile, most-hated biblical character
who killed Israelite women and children.
This only increases his standing
in the eyes of his supporters and in the polls, but Cohen needs to avoid getting
dragged into this jingoistic quagmire.
Cohen’s followers vociferously
argue against any alliance with Bennett and his Yesh Atid cohort MK Dov Lipman.
Cohen repeatedly assures his people he is running on his own platform and
personality. In politics, talk is ephemeral as women’s fashion.
trenches, politics is about getting things done, or as a US Senate Ways and
Means chairman once told me, power is in having the appearance of power. Deri
has jobs and money to distribute, giving him real power, and Shas will try to
lay Bennett bare on the hills of Beit Shemesh by returning Abutbol to office and
relishing the win in the national press.
Eli Cohen must reassert his
independence from national politics and parties. “I’m not sure if anyone can
muzzle Naftali Bennett, as he turns our local race into a national referendum on
‘us vs. them,’” according one ardent but frustrated Cohen supporter, “but Cohen
better work to make it happen.”
Cohen’s vision is what will win him the
mayoralty. The knuckle-brawler former mayor of Chicago quipped that a candidate
must work at it, deliver on their promises, and make the people believe “good
government is good politics.”
The writer is the managing partner of
Goldmeier Investments LLC and an instructor of business and social policy at the
American Jewish University, Aardvark Israel, in Tel Aviv, and lives in Beit
Shemesh. He volunteers for the Cohen campaign.