Abutbul should step down

At the end of the day, a court-mandated revote would help rebuild faith in Israel’s democratic institutions.

Beit Shemesh Mayor Moshe Abutbol (photo credit: Atara Beck)
Beit Shemesh Mayor Moshe Abutbol
(photo credit: Atara Beck)
Today a three-judge panel in Jerusalem will hear arguments by the state for the nullification of the results of October’s municipal elections in Beit Shemesh. The election, in which traditional challenger Eli Cohen was defeated by less than a thousand votes by haredi incumbent Moshe Abutbul, was plagued by “systematic, deliberate, organized and institutionalized criminal activity,” Attorney- General Yehuda Weinstein stated last month, following a police investigation.
The alleged electoral fraud, which Weinstein believes to have involved dozens of people and significant funding, first came to light on election day when police raided two apartments in an ultra-Orthodox neighborhood and confiscated approximately 200 government-issued identification cards and various disguises.
Following the election, members of the Cohen campaign collected testimony from disaffected voters who claimed that they had shown up at the polls only to be rebuffed and told that they had already voted. Multiple instances of haredim attempting to vote using other people’s identification cards were also recorded. Cohen’s campaign also claimed that a Shas party representative had thrown out ballots for the challenger to forestall people from voting for him and stated that hundreds of ballots that were cast were subsequently disqualified.
The identification card fraud alone cost tens of thousands of shekels, according to some estimates, which could indicate that the fraud was a large, “intentional and systematic attempt to skew the election’s results,” Weinstein stated.
Weinstein’s decision to call for new elections is a necessary step in the process of renewing the faith of the residents of Beit Shemesh in democracy. Moreover, the necessity for new elections is underscored by the breakdown in civil society in Beit Shemesh and the religious conflict into which the mayoral campaign descended. In recent years Beit Shemesh has become a center of national attention as a microcosm of the Kulturkampf now being waged for the nation’s identity, and the mayoral campaign brought the religious tensions in the mixed city to a boil. Pro-Abutbul campaign signs accused Cohen, a traditional but non-Orthodox Jew, of planning to run public buses in ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods on the Sabbath. Rabbi Avraham Levanthal, a representative of a moderate haredi faction supporting Cohen, claimed to have been stoned by an Abutbul campaign worker. Levanthal’s Tov faction headquarters’ lock was also glued shut.
Ultra-Orthodox children were caught breaking into private property to tear down pro-Cohen signs. Opposition activists have endured being called Nazi by crowds of such children when driving through the city. A Jerusalem Post correspondent covering the election was spit at by ultra-Orthodox youths yelling anti-Cohen slogans.
The Abutbul campaign was fined twice by High Court Justice Salim Joubran over three separate violations of campaign laws, including the misuse of children for electioneering purposes, while the Chen party, which supported the mayor, illegally promised voters blessings for voting for the mayor, which it deemed a biblical obligation. Chen also violated election rules when it convinced the administrators of a local school to send the parents of its pupils letters on party stationary calling on them to vote for Abutbul.
A sign calling only those who voted for the mayor religious Jews was plastered in front of one polling station, while national religious youths who were bused in from Jerusalem to hand out flyers stating the support of leading Zionist rabbis for the mayor were camped out at another. A spokesman for several of the rabbis in question accused the Abutbul campaign of fabricating the endorsements. By calling Cohen and his supporters “wicked” men who seek to “uproot the Torah,” Abutbul gave his imprimatur, intentional or otherwise, to those who would use any means necessary to defeat his opponent. The mayor should take the necessary steps – resign his position and endorse new elections – before judges Heshin, Sobel and Marzal reach a decision, thus proving himself a responsible politician and forestalling the explosion of resentment and hatred sure to follow a court-mandated nullification of October’s results.
At the end of the day, a court-mandated revote would help rebuild faith in Israel’s democratic institutions among a large portion of the electorate, but Abutbul’s resignation would help defuse the smoldering resentments among Beit Shemesh’s haredim before the city tears itself apart.