At 3 A.M., more than 1,000 people were gathered in the Karliner Hasid auditorium in Beitar Ilit. Meir Rubinstein, a Bratslav Hasid who surprised all the pundits when he unseated the incumbent non-Hasidic mayor, Yitzhak Pindros, by a huge majority (60 percent to 40 percent), was carried to the stage on the his supporters' shoulders.
After weeks of divisive politicking in this small ultra-Orthodox southern West Bank town, Rubinstein spoke in the conciliatory tones of the winner. He apologized to those "unknowingly hurt during the campaign," and even invited his opponents to join the coalition.
Not that he needs them. His United List, which includes Shas and most of the Hasidic groups in town, took nine out of the 15 seats on the town council.
The real winners
But the real victors in the local elections Tuesday were Rubinstein's patron, MK Meir Porush (United Torah Judaism), and Shas chairman and Industry, Trade and Labor Minister Eli Yishai. The two are seen, as one of the celebrants put it, as the ones who "finally broke the back of the Lithuanian patronage," referring to the non-Hasidic stream of ultra-Orthodoxy.
Like all Beitar campaigns, this one, too, created complex alliances that constantly reshuffled the ultra-Orthodox political deck. Yesterday, as the sun rose over what the locals call the "Torah city in the Judean Mountains," the outcome was clear: a defeat for the dominant ultra-Orthodox groups, mainly the non-Hasidic ones.
Pindros, generally considered a good mayor, lost because he represented the Lithuanian minority, less than a quarter of the population in a town where Sephardim and the smaller Hasidic groups are a large majority. Yishai has instilled new pride in those Rubinstein called in his victory speech "our Sephardic brethren" - those who had allegedly come up against discrimination in screening committees for potential residents and in schools. Shas, Rubinstein said, is now a full partner in the town council, "with no difference between Sephardi and Ashkenazi."
Paving the way to Jerusalem
But long before discrimination disappears from the town, Porush is likely to reap the fruits of his success, reportedly seeing his victory in Beitar Ilit as paving the way to the mayor's office in Jerusalem in 2008, replacing the non-Hasidic present mayor, Uri Lupolianski.
Porush devoted most of his speech to the refusal of the non-Hasidic groups to honor the agreements signed six years ago to support Rubinstein in the local elections.
He said - with more than the hint of a threat - that ahead of the 2008 elections in Jerusalem, Porush, with or without Shas, would insist on agreements with the non-Hasidic Degel Hatorah party that it support Porush or a candidate of his choosing.
Porush's success in Beitar is a blow for the dominant movement in Agudat Yisrael, the Gerer Hasidim, of which Ya'akov Litzman is a member. Litzman was sure of a Pindros win, and most of the ultra-Orthodox media outlets were as well.
Everyone was surprised. Nahman Benshaya, a Bratslav activist and member of the Modi'in Ilit city council, brought dozens of activists. Supporters also came from Bnei Brak, Jerusalem and even Safed.
"We proved that the small groups in the ultra-Orthodox community can beat the big ones," Benshaya said. "What happened in Beitar is a coming attraction for what will happen in Jerusalem. Porush is the real political underdog who gambled the whole pot and won."
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