Beit Shemesh elections

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.

By HAROLD GOLDMEIER
August 18, 2013 22:04
4 minute read.
HAREDIM STAND on a sidewalk in Ramat Beit Shemesh

haredim in beit shemesh. (photo credit: REUTERS)

 
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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.

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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.

Cohen’s candidacy 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.

Mayor 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.



The mayor’s 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 haredim.

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.

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 Aesopian.

Shas leaders and sympathizers torrefy Bennett as a poltroon and knave.

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.

In the 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.

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