Upcoming Beit Shemesh Mayoral Race Is Last Chance in 'War' Over City's Future

Non-ultra-Orthodox candidates hold primary vote via public survey to determine which candidate will face off against current Haredi Mayor Moshe Abutbul, of Shas.

The election campaign for Beit Shemesh's new mayor is in full swing, although the local elections arrive only in October. The city's streets and sidewalks are covered with campaign signposts and leaflets, touting Eli Cohen, Aliza Bloch and Meir Belaish for mayor.

A number of non-Haredi candidates decided to hold a primary vote via public survey to determine which candidate will face off against current Mayor Moshe Abutbul, of Shas.

"We're cooperating out of concern for the city and a desire to preserve its Zionist character," the candidates said in a pact they signed.

"Although we represent the majority, the voting rate among the ultra-Orthodox is higher. If we split our vote we have no chance," says Zion Sultan, editor of a local newspaper and one of the people who initiated the survey.

Beit Shemesh has made headlines in the past few years for increased conflict between its Haredi and non-Haredi residents. The tensions peaked over several incidents in which women were attacked in the predominantly Haredi neighborhood of Ramat Beit Shemesh. In the city, which has a rapidly growing Haredi population, people expect this struggle to be the main issue of the upcoming election, with the non-Haredi parties dubbing the election "the last battle for the city's future."

The city's Haredi community - making up 40-45 percent of the population - is expected to vote for Abutbul. So are some residents of older Beit Shemesh, who support Shas. To beat him, the secular and religious communities must not only unite behind one candidate, but also ensure a high voter turnout and the support - open or concealed - of part of the Haredi public.

Currently, the non-Haredi mayoral candidates are Eli Cohen, a senior Mekorot official; Aliza Bloch, a high school principal running for Habayit Hayehudi; and Moti Cohen, a municipal council member and furniture store owner.

Surveys point to Eli Cohen and Bloch as the leading candidates. Bloch is supported by Habayit Hayehudi, Yesh Atid and Likud. Three days ago Labor's representative in the city, Richard Peres, stepped down from the race and said he supported Bloch.

Bloch's opponents say she is incapable of drawing Haredi votes and her candidacy would harm the secular faction's chances of winning. Eli Cohen, who is running against her, says Habayit Hayehudi leader Naftali Bennett "wanted to field a woman in a city that discriminates against them. His decision stems from a national political agenda, regardless of Beit Shemesh," says Cohen. "It's spin."

Many of the city's secular residents fear that if Abutbul is elected for another term, Beit Shemesh will turn into an ultra-Orthodox city in a few years and the non-Haredi public will leave.

Abutbul's rivals say he built thousands of homes for Haredi families with massive support from the Housing Ministry, mainly under Minister Ariel Atias, of Shas. Fanatic Hasidic sects flocked into the city, which gained notoriety for being radical and enforcing extreme "modesty" codes on women.

Secular residents feel the government has "sacrificed" Beit Shemesh and is using it to provide housing for the country's ultra-Orthodox population. Most of the city's residents say the campaign over Ramat Beit Shemesh is lost. The neighborhood is covered with provocative street posters and notices calling to control women and burn the national flag on Independence Day.

"People see what's happening. Some have lost hope, others pin their hopes on the elections," a local political figure says.

In a survey conducted for candidate Eli Cohen by Maagar Mochot, 32 percent of Beit Shemesh's non-Haredi residents said they would leave (14 percent ) or consider leaving (18 percent ) if a Haredi mayor is elected in the coming elections.

"Today the situation is still reversible. Beit Shemesh can still be a multicultural, Zionist city," says Cohen.

Tagar, a group of youngsters founded four years ago, sees the elections in October as Beit Shemesh's "last chance." Tagar chairman Moshe Sheetrit says only a quarter of his high school classmates remained in the city after completing their military service.

He will not say what he will do if Abutbul is reelected. "It will be rough. We won't accept an ethnic expulsion. We won't be driven out of the town we grew up in only because politicians like Eli Yishai decided we should," he says.

"We're fighting for our home, not over a new pool or cleaning parks," he says. "We'll fight with everything we've got. Election day for us is like going to war."

Tali Meyer