Court decision over election in Beit Shemesh sparks contention among lawmakers

Haredi politicians denounce decision, calling it undemocratic, and accusing the court of being influenced by a media campaign.

Banners demanding to overturn Beit Shemesh election 370 (photo credit: Yonah Jeremy Bob)
Banners demanding to overturn Beit Shemesh election 370
(photo credit: Yonah Jeremy Bob)
The unprecedented decision handed down by the Jerusalem District Court on Thursday, calling for new municipal elections in Beit Shemesh, generated controversy.
Haredi politicians expressed ferocious denunciations saying the decision trampled upon democracy, whereas non haredi lawmakers praised the decision as upholding that very same democracy.
Eli Cohen, the independent mayoral candidate who lost the election to Shas representative and incumbent mayor Moshe Abutbul, claimed that justice and democracy had won. “We now have to leave the past behind us and work together for the sake of the city,” he said.
But haredi politicians were swift to denounce the decision, labeling it undemocratic, claiming that the court had been influenced by a concerted media campaign.
Abutbul said he had faith in the justice system but he did not accept the ruling and that, following advice from legal experts, he would present a request to the Supreme Court to appeal the decision.
“If, God forbid, new elections are held in the city, the decision of the majority in Beit Shemesh will be preserved,” Abutbul said.
Shas chairman Arye Deri said he was “saddened that the honorable court chose to follow the media campaign and nullified democracy in Beit Shemesh,” and was the first to announce that Shas would appeal the result.
Prior to announcing the appeal, Deri said he was sure Abutbul would win new elections “by an even greater margin,” than the original elections – in which he won by 956 votes.
The court’s decision calling for new elections is a landmark ruling that has little precedent in the history of the state.
Prominent attorney Aviad Hacohen told The Jerusalem Post that there have been isolated incidents in which courts have called for ballots to be re-run for select polling stations within a municipal jurisdiction in both local and national elections.
He said however that he was unaware of any previous ruling calling for new elections for an entire city or municipal district.
As well as criticizing the decision, several haredi politicians called for unity among the haredi parties in Beit Shemesh.
Senior United Torah Judaism MK Moshe Gafni said that the different haredi parties in the city should form a joint working group to bring haredi and non-haredi Beit Shemesh residents out to vote for Abutbul, who he described as “an excellent mayor,” adding that he nevertheless supported an appeal against the “unjust decision” of the court.
Within the city, Shmuel Greenberg, haredi member of the Beit Shemesh Municipal Council for Degel Hatorah, claimed that public pressure and “media incitement” had influenced the court that “did not examine the sparse and meager evidence in a proper fashion.”
“The day on which democratic elections are invalidated on the basis of rumor and paltry evidence is a day of mourning for democracy and the state of Israel,” Greenberg added.
He pointed to the narrow margin of victory in recent mayoral elections in Nazareth, where voter fraud was also discovered but where new elections were not called.
He claimed that “when there is the scent of haredim, the courts act accordingly and not in our favor.”
Aharon Salomon, the leader of the moderate haredi party Tov, which lost its municipal council seat in the elections, said briefly on Facebook that “after two months and four days a true smile crossed my face. We have new elections.”
United Torah Judaism MK Yisrael Eichler said the decision proved there was a “legal dictatorship” in Israel, akin to the current regime in Egypt.
“The day will come when the secular regime will place the haredim outside of the law, as was done in Egypt, all in the name of democracy,” said Eichler in reference to an Egyptian court decision in September that banned the Muslim Brotherhood.
“The haredi community needs to prepare for life under a despotic regime and to struggle with the tools that are still in their hands to protect their religious freedoms,” the MK continued.
“[Russian President Vladimir] Putin’s regime and the supreme court in Egypt also find democratic explanations that are perfect for eliminating their opponents and to trample human rights in the name of “enlightenment,” he added.
Meanwhile, Labor party chairman and leader of the opposition MK Yitzhak Herzog welcomed the decision, calling it “a great victory for democracy.”
“The citizens of Beit Shemesh can now elect a mayor without alien influences,” he said.
Yesh Atid MK and Beit Shemesh resident Rabbi Dov Lipman also praised the decision, saying that the fight for the identity and future of the city was “a microcosm” for the country.
“The winner of these new elections will be accepted as mayor by the city’s citizens regardless of religious identity, with the peace of mind that this was done democratically and not through fraud,” said Lipman.
Meretz MK Nitzan Horowitz congratulated Beit Shemesh and Israel on the decision and spoke out in harsh terms against haredi political behavior in the city.
“I have time and again visited Beit Shemesh to battle against ugly politicking, injustice, religious coercion, the humiliation of women, political tricks and everything else,” Horowitz said.
“Beit Shemesh is a city in the State of Israel and we are not giving up on it. The sanctity of elections is a principle foundation. Without it, we can turn out the lights and throw the key into the sea,” the MK opined.