Court on Thursday ordered new elections in Beit Shemesh and nullified the October election results due to massive and systematic fraud.Shas chairman MK Arye Deri announced Thursday on afternoon that incumbent Mayor Moshe Abutbul of the Shas Party would appeal the decision to the Supreme Court.
The unprecedented decision, which also applies to city council, is certain to set off a new round of conflict in a city mired by disputes between the supporters of the ultra-Orthodox Abutbul and his challenger, Eli Cohen, who represents a coalition of secular and religious-Zionist residents.According to the law, Interior Minister Gideon Sa’ar will set the date for new elections that must be within 120 days of either Thursday’s decision or the end of any appeal.Abutbul has 14 days to decide whether to appeal.As a result, the re-vote might not be for several months, as even fast-tracked appeals to the Supreme Court take time.According to the Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s Prof. Barak Medina, because of the unusual situation, Abutbul would first need to get permission from the Supreme Court to appeal, followed, if he is granted permission, by a separate appeal filing. Thursday’s three-judge panel – David Heshin, Moshe Sobel and Yigal Marzel – said it agreed with Cohen and Attorney-General Yehuda Weinstein that the elections were substantially deficient enough, with practically a “fraud industry” and a planned and widespread- enough phenomenon of fraud, that a vote free of massive fraud could have yielded a different result.Noting that election day is supposed to “celebrate democracy,” the court said the “heavy shadow” over the process was such that democracy could only be affirmed by “returning the issue to the voter – so that he can have his say.”It sided with the state on the central issue of what standard of proof to apply for proving fraud, noting the court proceeding were administrative, as opposed to a trial. Therefore, certain police evidence, even if it were incomplete and might not have been acceptable in a regular trial, could be accepted by the court.Accordingly, it applied the “balance of the probabilities” standard, which is closer to the lower civil law standard of proof of “more likely than not” than the much higher criminal law standard of proof of “beyond a reasonable doubt.”Moreover, the court found that one of Abutbul’s campaign advisers, and many supporters, had received and sent text messages indicating likely knowledge and involvement in the fraud scheme, including phrases such as “They’ve caught us,” when police arrested them.
Weinstein’s appeal won despite potential setbacks for the state in an interim decision issued on December 10. Though the setbacks had included the court ordering the state to give the exact number of proven fraudulent votes it would consider the threshold for mandating overturning the election, instead of focusing on the general picture of systematic fraud having taken place, the state prevailed on Thursday.Abutbul won the now-nullified October 29 runoff race by a razor-thin margin of 956 votes.On appeal, Weinstein had implied that the significant arrests and the 828 votes that had already been disqualified as problematic endangered the faith of Beit Shemesh residents enough that their democratic rights were being trampled.Weinstein mentioned two police busts of centers for voter fraud, producing 161 fraudulent voter registrations (based on the number of identity cards recovered).According to Weinstein, suspects in the fraud had said they knew of a “target” goal of paying between 1,000 and 1,700 “enthusiasts” to vote in favor of Abutbul and his party’s slate, and had heard of a bag holding 500 identity cards to be used to vote illegally.Cohen’s stance was even more aggressive: “Math does not capture by itself the fraud committed and the damage to democracy in Beit Shemesh,” and on election day, there had been intimidation and “terror in the streets against supporters of Cohen.”Lawyer Jacob Weinroth, representing Abutbul, had thundered away at the state and Cohen, saying “there is no real evidence in this case,” calling the state’s evidence “hearsay” and satirizing the evidence as a string of rumors and conversations between several people that could not prove anything in a courtroom.Weinroth quoted case law that he said proved the court must judge the evidence in the case according to the beyond-a-reasonable- doubt standard used in criminal cases.But the state’s arguments prevailed, ushering in a new election for Beit Shemesh that promises to be at least as explosive as the now overturned vote.Jeremy Sharon contributed to this report.