New elections slated for Beit Shemesh and Nazareth next month

Abutbul: I’m surprised how easy it is to erase democracy; Justices say October’s fraud was ‘worrying and disturbing.’

Moshe Abutbul poster Beit Shemesh 370 (photo credit: Sam Sokol)
Moshe Abutbul poster Beit Shemesh 370
(photo credit: Sam Sokol)
The Supreme Court on Tuesday ordered new elections in Beit Shemesh and Nazareth, nullifying the October municipal election results.
Beit Shemesh mayoral challenger Eli Cohen, who, along with Attorney-General Yehuda Weinstein, had appealed against the election results, said the court had upheld the principle that “the integrity of elections and public trust are inviolable.”
Moshe Abutbul of Shas, the incumbent mayor and winner of the now-annulled October election, said “I was not surprised by the decision, but I was surprised by the ease with which it is possible to cancel an election result, with which it is possible to erase democracy.”
Within hours of the Supreme Court announcement, Interior Minister Gideon Sa’ar announced that the revotes in Beit Shemesh and Nazareth will take place on March 11, creating a frenetic 30-day frenzy for parties and candidates to campaign in their final showdown.
The campaigning is expected to set off a new round of conflict in Beit Shemesh, a city mired by disputes between the supporters of the ultra-Orthodox Abutbul and Cohen, who represents a coalition of secular and religious- Zionist residents.
The Supreme Court opinion, written by Justice Uzi Vogelman and supported by Supreme Court President Asher D. Grunis and Justice Elyakim Rubinstein, said that the fraud committed in the October Beit Shemesh elections was “worrying and disturbing.”
It added that “the Beit Shemesh residents, and the electoral apparatus which was designed to manifest their democratic will, fell victim to an organized, systematic and widespread web of violations of the law.”
Meanwhile, the Supreme Court’s Nazareth ruling was handed down only hours before, also based on allegations of irregularities, but somewhat more related to a much thinner margin of victory of only seven to nine votes.
The decision was handed down by Grunis, Justice Yitzhak Amit and Justice Dafna Barak-Erez.
In January, Weinstein had taken the position that the courts should nullify the October 2013 municipal election results and order a revote.
Weinstein made his request after lower court decisions were expected to overturn the original results in favor of candidate Ali Salaam and crown incumbent Ramiz Jaraisi (who lost the election prior to the initial court intervention) as mayor.
The attorney-general said that irregularities at 11 polling stations went to the foundation of the election’s legitimacy and required a completely new vote, particularly with such a tiny winning margin.
In the Beit Shemesh decision, the Supreme Court said that the special context of the appeal, as part of an administrative proceeding dealing with elections, meant it had very limited power to reverse factual findings of the Jerusalem District Court.
The Supreme Court added that it accepted the lower court’s decision that a lower standard of evidence, without the need for witness testimony and cross-examination, was appropriate according to relevant statutes and precedent.
It rejected attacks on the lower court’s finding that the sheer size of the community of the group mainly associated with the fraud made the potential fraud large enough to affect the final result, saying that this was a factual finding that could not be attacked on appeal and that it was only one of the lower court’s reasons for its ruling.
Vogelman endorsed the lower court’s finding that there was a substantial possibility that the fraud had affected the result as having met the strictest standard for ordering new elections.
He said that the lower court also gave democratic legitimacy and removing the cloud of fraud from the voters’ will as an independent basis for ordering a revote, but said that the Supreme Court did not need to address that point, since the “substantial possibility” rule had been met and was enough.
In contrast, Rubinstein not only supported Vogelman’s decision, but expressed support for cleaning elections of the cloud of fraud as a valid reason for new elections.
Abutbul said he had expected the decision to go against him, but that the ruling was unjust and unsubstantiated.
“Anyone who knows the statistics knows that I won by nearly a thousand votes, and that there were 36 dubious votes cast, and [therefore] understands that an injustice has been done to the electorate [through] gross interference with the system of government, because someone thinks that in this way he can defeat demographics,” he continued in reference to the city’s rapidly growing haredi population.
“The public whose democratic decision was trampled upon has become mobilized today more than at any other time, but even though we expect to win in the repeat elections as well, deep introspection must be undergone and the question be asked how we have reached a situation...
in which an entire community has been trampled upon because of its faith and sectoral allegiance.”
Cohen said, “We don’t want to go over the past but instead look to the future to bring hope to Beit Shemesh.
We will not be dragged into a war of religion, nor into slander,” he said about the coming campaign.
“We come to new elections with new hope for Beit Shemesh, and that everyone will have the opportunity to choose a Beit Shemesh that will more open and more prosperous,” he said.
“Our prayer is that Beit Shemesh should be an outstanding, historic example of a city in which falsehood was pushed out the window and truth and justice entered through the front door,” Cohen said, speaking during a press conference in the city.
Bayit Yehudi, which endorsed Cohen’s campaign, welcomed the decision and said it would, together with the “Zionist bloc” lead a clean and honest campaign.
“The time for elections by Skoda has ended. Abutbul will need to bring out voters this time,” the party said.
A Skoda vehicle was stopped during the October election, and the haredi driver was caught as he was trying to put eight state-issued identity cards and a passport into a garbage can.
Police found 31 more ID cards in the car. The driver signed an affidavit that he worked to get ID cards from people who were not able or eligible to vote.
Haredi MKs reacted angrily to the ruling and railed against the intervention of the courts.
Shas chairman Arye Deri said that “the court’s intervention in the democratic process... is extremely regrettable,” and that he was certain Abutbul would win in the repeat elections by an even greater margin.
On January 23, the Supreme Court heard arguments by both sides in the appeal of the Jerusalem District Court’s December 26 ruling nullifying the elections and ordering new ones on the grounds of massive and systematic fraud.
Abutbul appealed with the attorney-general and Cohen opposed.
Cohen argued that the order for new elections should stand and that a reversal would be allowing an “attack on Israeli democracy.”
Abutbul’s lawyer argued that ordering entirely new elections when Abutbul and his Shas party were not accused of wrongdoing, with the lower court blaming most of the fraud on the Koah Lehashpia party, was a “collective punishment.”
He added that “new elections should be the last option” and “throwing out an election would be fixing an injustice with an injustice.”
Explaining in more detail the basis for overruling the lower court, Abutbul’s lawyer said it had incorrectly said that the scope of the fraud and the size of the community involved meant that an estimated 1,400 votes could be disqualified, more than Abutbul’s 956 winning margin.
He said the police had only a couple of hundred forged identity cards in hand, with the rest of the 1,400 alleged fraudulent votes essentially being hearsay, and he said that some of the identity cards found were not actually used to vote.
He attacked the lower court’s assumptions on the size of the communities that had participated in the fraud, claiming that the court overestimated the percentages of voters in general and the fraudulent voters in particular.
Cohen’s lawyer made an impassioned display, saying that not only would allowing the fraudulent election results to stand be an attack on Beit Shemesh’s democracy, but also on “Israel’s democracy, on us, on all of us.” Without new elections, a new “level of fraud is becoming the norm,” he said.
The lawyer said that the country must draw a line as though to declare that the fraud had grown “until here,” but not further.
He slammed viewing the election results merely as an exercise in arithmetic, saying that questions of democratic purity and legitimacy had to be an essential part of deciding the issue.
The three-judge lower court panel – consisting of David Heshin, Moshe Sobel and Yigal Marzel – had said it agreed with Cohen and Weinstein that the elections were substantially deficient enough – practically a “fraud industry, a planned and widespread phenomenon of fraud “such that a vote free of massive fraud could have yielded a different result.
Weinstein had told the lower court that the 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.