Court Orders New Mayoral Elections in Divided Israeli City of Beit Shemesh

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A new mayoral election will be held in Beit Shemesh, the Jerusalem District Court ruled yesterday. The ruling accepted appeals by Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein and losing mayoral candidate Eli Cohen against the result of the original election.

Incumbent ultra-Orthodox mayor Moshe Abutbul (Shas) and his party said they would appeal the ruling to the Supreme Court. However, legal experts say the chances of a successful appeal are slim in light of the facts on which the district court’s ruling was made, and that new elections will indeed be scheduled within 30 days.

Secular challenger Eli Cohen praised the decision saying “the truth came out.”

Beit Shemesh’s 100,000 residents are split almost equally between ultra-Orthodox and other Jewish groups, including the secular, the modern Orthodox, Russian and American immigrants and Jews of Middle Eastern descent.

Official results of the October vote showed voters lining up almost entirely according to religious affiliation. Abutbul won by less than 1,000 votes.

The appeals against the election result claimed that suspected irregularities uncovered by the police before and during the election raised genuine suspicion that the result was obtained illegally and in contradiction to the wishes of the voters. The investigation by the Lahav 433 unit of the national police continues.

Police raided two apartments in Beit Shemesh on election day, seizing 170 ID cards that, it is suspected, were used for illegal voting. They also seized items of clothing suspected of being “disguises,” apparently meant to mislead the members of the polling committee. The police investigation revealed that at least 36 of the ID cards that were seized were actually used for voting.

Another issue raised in the appeals was the systematic changing of addresses during the period preceding the elections; the appellants claimed that they were fictitious residents who registered in the city in order to vote. The appellants also noted that there were additional irregularities, including voters who discovered that someone else had voted in their name, that a vote count was not conducted according to procedure and that forbidden election tactics, including threats and promises, were used by Shas.

Judges David Cheshin, Yigal Marzel and Moshe Sobel accepted Weinstein’s appeal in its entirety. They noted in their ruling that they needed only the matter of the ID cards to strike down the election results, and did not even need to refer to the irregularities cited in Cohen’s appeal to rule that new elections must be held.

Mayor Abutbul (Shas) claimed that the appeals attest to an unwillingness to accept the voters’ decision. With the exception of the 36 votes using the ID cards that were seized, there was no direct and admissible evidence of forgeries or other improprieties, he said, and even all the irregularities combined did not add up to a change in the outcome of the mayoral election, since he won by a majority of 936 votes.

The Beit Shemesh elections were considered crucial for the future of the city. The secular camp believes that another term of Abutbul as mayor will destroy the prospects of Beit Shemesh remaining a pluralistic city. It will become an ultra-Orthodox city and its secular and national-religious residents will be pushed out, they fear.

Chaim Levinson adds: Commenting on the court’s decision, MK Yaacov Litzman (United Torah Judaism) said that “Israeli democracy suffered a fatal blow today. I regret that an Israeli court in 2013 is swayed by media pressure and subjective public sentiment.”

Litzman’s party colleague, Moshe Gafni, called on all sectors of the city’s population to support Abutbul, who he described as an “excellent mayor.” At the same time, he said, an appeal should be filed against “the district court’s unjust decision.”

Beit Shemesh protest against alleged voter fraud in early November. Sign reads: "Beit Shemesh is multi-cultural / not Haredi"Credit: Olivier Fitussi
Beit Shemesh mayor Moshe Abutbul: No gays in my city.Credit: Michal Fattal

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