Beit Shemesh Mayor Moshe Abutbol.
(photo credit: Atara Beck)
Today a three-judge panel in Jerusalem will hear arguments by the state for the
nullification of the results of October’s municipal elections in Beit Shemesh.
The election, in which traditional challenger Eli Cohen was defeated by less
than a thousand votes by haredi incumbent Moshe Abutbul, was plagued by
“systematic, deliberate, organized and institutionalized criminal activity,”
Attorney- General Yehuda Weinstein stated last month, following a police
The alleged electoral fraud, which Weinstein believes to
have involved dozens of people and significant funding, first came to light on
election day when police raided two apartments in an ultra-Orthodox neighborhood
and confiscated approximately 200 government-issued identification cards and
Following the election, members of the Cohen campaign
collected testimony from disaffected voters who claimed that they had shown up
at the polls only to be rebuffed and told that they had already voted. Multiple
instances of haredim attempting to vote using other people’s identification
cards were also recorded. Cohen’s campaign also claimed that a Shas party
representative had thrown out ballots for the challenger to forestall people
from voting for him and stated that hundreds of ballots that were cast were
The identification card fraud alone cost tens
of thousands of shekels, according to some estimates, which could indicate that
the fraud was a large, “intentional and systematic attempt to skew the
election’s results,” Weinstein stated.
Weinstein’s decision to call for
new elections is a necessary step in the process of renewing the faith of the
residents of Beit Shemesh in democracy. Moreover, the necessity for new
elections is underscored by the breakdown in civil society in Beit Shemesh and
the religious conflict into which the mayoral campaign descended. In recent
years Beit Shemesh has become a center of national attention as a microcosm of
the Kulturkampf now being waged for the nation’s identity, and the mayoral
campaign brought the religious tensions in the mixed city to a boil. Pro-Abutbul
campaign signs accused Cohen, a traditional but non-Orthodox Jew, of planning to
run public buses in ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods on the Sabbath. Rabbi Avraham
Levanthal, a representative of a moderate haredi faction supporting Cohen,
claimed to have been stoned by an Abutbul campaign worker. Levanthal’s Tov
faction headquarters’ lock was also glued shut.
were caught breaking into private property to tear down pro-Cohen signs.
Opposition activists have endured being called Nazi by crowds of such children
when driving through the city. A Jerusalem Post correspondent covering the
election was spit at by ultra-Orthodox youths yelling anti-Cohen
The Abutbul campaign was fined twice by High Court Justice Salim
Joubran over three separate violations of campaign laws, including the misuse of
children for electioneering purposes, while the Chen party, which supported the
mayor, illegally promised voters blessings for voting for the mayor, which it
deemed a biblical obligation. Chen also violated election rules when it
convinced the administrators of a local school to send the parents of its pupils
letters on party stationary calling on them to vote for Abutbul.
calling only those who voted for the mayor religious Jews was plastered in front
of one polling station, while national religious youths who were bused in from
Jerusalem to hand out flyers stating the support of leading Zionist rabbis for
the mayor were camped out at another. A spokesman for several of the rabbis in
question accused the Abutbul campaign of fabricating the endorsements. By
calling Cohen and his supporters “wicked” men who seek to “uproot the Torah,”
Abutbul gave his imprimatur, intentional or otherwise, to those who would use
any means necessary to defeat his opponent. The mayor should take the necessary
steps – resign his position and endorse new elections – before judges Heshin,
Sobel and Marzal reach a decision, thus proving himself a responsible politician
and forestalling the explosion of resentment and hatred sure to follow a
court-mandated nullification of October’s results.
At the end of the day,
a court-mandated revote would help rebuild faith in Israel’s democratic
institutions among a large portion of the electorate, but Abutbul’s resignation
would help defuse the smoldering resentments among Beit Shemesh’s haredim before
the city tears itself apart.