Battle for Beit Shemesh

To Beat Haredi Mayor, Religious Israeli Party Enlists Secular Candidate

With tensions rising between ultra-Orthodox, religious and secular residents, Habayit Hayehudi leader Naftali Bennett urges 'moderate, Zionist' residents to unite.

Habayit Hayehudi has switched its support in the Beit Shemesh mayoral race, from Aliza Bloch to Eli Cohen. In a surprise move just two and a half months before municipal elections, party chairman and Economy Minister Naftali Bennett announced that Eli Cohen, who had been running as an independent, is to join Habayit Hayehudi for his challenge to the incumbent, Moshe Abutbol. The Kipa website reported the maneuver on Thursday night.

In response, Bloch announced she will not honor the agreement she had with Cohen, according to which the non-Haredi mayoral candidate would be chosen in an opinion poll - and the other would quit the race and support the victor.

Veteran pollster Mina Tzemach has begun the survey of the city’s voters. The results were to have been released next week.

Habayit Hayehudi's surprise announcement said Bloch would serve as deputy mayor under Cohen, but Bloch herself said she knew nothing about such an agreement and issued an angry respnse. Bloch said Thursday night she was weighing her options.

Cohen, a former senior official of the Jewish Agency for Israel and today a senior executive in the Mekorot national water company, now looks to be the leading candidate in Beit Shemesh’s nonreligious and religious Zionist communities.

Ramping up efforts to take control of Beit Shemesh - the flash-point Israeli town where issues of religious freedom and civil rights have recently flared into violent clashes - a religious party has enlisted a secular candidate in its battle against ultra-Orthodox control, the website said.

Only a month and a half ago Bennett stood alongside Bloch, a high school principal and member of Habayit Hayehudi, when she announced her candidacy. Bennett said at the time that Bloch cuts across the city’s social boundaries and will be the candidate and the mayor of everyone. "Aliza Bloch … is a symbol that something new is beginning in Beit Shemesh," Bennett, who is also minister of religious services, said.

Two candidates have quit the race in the past few weeks, Cohen and Bloch are now the only Zionist, non-Haredi challengers.

Cohen's supporters said local Habayit Hayehudi officials began pivoting toward him when they realized Bloch had no chance of winning the election, and they pushed Bennett into changing his mind.

“To my regret, while the survey was under way Habayit Hayehudi decided to join up with Eli Cohen and proposed I serve as his deputy,” Bloch said, adding, “I refused, since in my opinion even in politics there are limits and it is forbidden to zigzag," she said. Bloch said Cohen and Habayit Hayehudi reached their agreement behind her back.

Moshe Abutbol belongs to Shas. Many non-Haredi residents say they fear his reelection would turn Beit Shemesh completely ultra-Orthodox within a few years.

"I praise this unity framework that will enable the Zionist factions to cooperate in order to forcefully reach the real goal - returning the city to Zionist hands, to forces of moderation and sanity that will represent Judaism's best face," Kipa quoted Bennett as saying on Thursday morning. "I call on all the Zionist parties to join the struggle, that has become a symbolic one for the State of Israel. This is a last chance. The Zionist faction has no choice but to win."

Bennett added that in the last election his party won many secular votes, and he intends to stay that course in the municipal sphere as well as the national.

Habayit Hayehudi said: "This is a day of good tidings - for the first time in the history of Habayit Hayehudi and the entire Zionist bloc, there is for the first time a nonreligious candidate for mayor of an Israeli city. We think the national interest is more important than personal interests, for the Zionist camp to win. Aliza Bloch was offered the second, respectable position dozens of times in the past few days, but she agreed to run only in the first spot, and she can still change her mind," said the party.

Beit Shemesh has made headlines in recent years for increased conflict between 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 final 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, who has been mayor since 2008. So are some residents of older parts of the city, 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.

Tali Meyer