Attorney-General Yehuda Weinstein on Wednesday filed an appeal with the Jerusalem District Court, in its capacity as an administrative court, against the Beit Shemesh municipal election results.
Weinstein asked the court to use its powers under Section 73 of the Municipal Elections Law of 1965 to nullify the election results for both mayor and city council.
He based this on a review of the police investigation into widespread allegations of fraud and forgery.
A statement by the Justice Ministry said the investigation revealed a “harsh picture of planned, organized and systematic criminal activities” supported by “dozens of people and substantial economic resources.”
Weinstein said the “severe deficiencies” in the elections, in light of the razor-close margin of victory of only 956 votes for incumbent Mayor Moshe Abutbul, made it clear that the plan was to impact the outcome of the elections.
He noted that even before the investigation, 828 votes had been disqualified.
Abutbul called the attorney- general’s request a “test for Israeli democracy” and claimed that a campaign to hold new elections in the city was borne out of incitement against the ultra-Orthodox.
“Is Israeli democracy valid in relation to sectors of the population that are not such well supported parts of Israeli society?” Abutbul asked in a statement to the press, adding that he trusted the courts to examine the “slanderous” allegations and refute them.
“It is a great shame that there are people who are unable to accept the decision of the electorate, and instead choose to continue the incitement and dissemination of hatred from the election campaign, and in so doing try to drag Beit Shemesh into a civil war while impugning and maligning the residents of the city with imaginary conspiracy theories,” Abutbul said.
The police investigation found that prior to election day, people had been encouraged to provide their identity cards to those plotting the fraud.
In turning to the court, Weinstein mentioned two instances in which police uncovered alleged cases of fraud.
At one polling place at least 62 suspected fraudulent voter registrations were found. At another there were 99. In the first instance, all of the adults on-site were arrested. In the second, police were able to detain only five of the approximately 20 persons there; all were identified as haredi, according to their apparel, he noted.
Weinstein added that many of those arrested exercised their right to remain silent, but some, he said, made statements to investigators that clearly indicated they were involved in voter fraud that police had only partially uncovered.
One suspected central player said he knew of a “target” goal of paying between 1,000-1,700 “enthusiasts” to vote in favor of Abutbul and his party’s slate. Another told of overhearing that someone had a bag with 500 identity cards for illegal voting, Weinstein said.
The attorney-general added that police found paraphernalia that linked the operation, at least ideologically, with the campaigns of Abutbul and his party’s slate. Moreover, one of the mayor’s campaign advisers received text messages indicating that he knew about and was involved in the scheme.
Weinstein said that with such widespread fraud the court needed to intervene so that the true will of the residents of Beit Shemesh could be ascertained in an election free from tampering.
Eli Cohen, Abutbul’s challenger in the mayoral race, said the attorney general’s appeal was an important moment for democracy in both Beit Shemesh and Israel.
“It is a statement that emphasizes democracy, justice, the rule of law and the purity of elections as values of supreme importance in the State of Israel,” he told The Jerusalem Post
“The police have done their work and the attorney-general appealed on that basis,” Cohen said. “I call on Abutbul to respect the rule of law and support new elections.”
The challenger also protested the mayor’s accusations that there had been a campaign of incitement against haredim. He noted an official Abutbul election poster depicting haredi children behind barbed wire evoking Holocaust-era imagery as an implication that this would be the fate of the haredi community if Cohen won.
“Abutbul surely knows what he’s talking about when it comes to incitement, since it is he who compared non-haredi rule in Beit Shemesh to the Nazis,” said Cohen.
“Any attempt to turn this struggle for the rule of law into an issue of haredim versus non-haredim will only hurt the haredi community and Beit Shemesh. I’m not against haredim and I never was, and it is Abutbul who has divided the city.”
Several haredi MKs spoke out against Weinstein’s decision, with senior UTJ MK Moshe Gafni labeling him “the most political attorney-general in the history of the state.”
“There was no doubt that in a dispute between a haredi representative and a secular candidate, Weinstein would work in favor of the secular person,” Gafni claimed. “From a constitutional and legal standpoint, there is no basis for Weinstein’s position that relies on speculation that has formed in his head in order to justify his appeal to the courts and ignore the serious implications his decision will have on the elections and democracy in Israel.”
Shas chairman Arye Deri called the decision “cheap populism” and said Weinstein had been influenced by “background noise generated by certain parties on the back of democracy and the society that won fairly in the elections.