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With court’s vote fraud finding, the battle for Beit Shemesh resumes

Two months after allegations of voter fraud surfaced in the mayoral elections of Beit Shemesh, Jerusalem’s district court has nullified the election results and called for a re-vote — citing election fraud. Haredi Beit Shemesh Mayor Moshe Abutbul won the original race by a margin of fewer than 1,000 votes in the city of 80,000 that, in recent years, has been the epicenter of Israel’s religious divide. But in an interview with JTA a week after losing the election, Modern Orthodox runner-up Eli Cohen did not concede the race and spoke in terms of “when I’m mayor.”

The court ruling is a major initial win for Cohen, but his supporters shouldn’t crown him mayor just yet, since Abutbul will appeal. Here are a few thoughts on the ruling and why it matters for Israel’s future:

  • Expect this ruling to expand, not shrink, Israel’s haredi-secular divide. 2013 has already been a volcanic year politically for the fight between Israel’s haredi and secular/non-haredi camps. The centrist Yesh Atid Party’s success in national elections meant lower subsidies to haredim and efforts to cancel the haredi draft exemption and institute civil unions. Women of the Wall’s legal victory at the Western Wall led to mass haredi protests. The haredi victory in both chief rabbi elections, a rare haredi win this year, was marred by simultaneous corruption allegations against former Chief Rabbi Yona Metzger.The Beit Shemesh ruling is yet another setback for Israel’s haredi politicians, and they’re not taking it quietly. Aryeh Deri, chairman of Abutbul’s Shas Party, said the decision “nullified democracy in Beit Shemesh.” A United Torah Judaism Knesset member, Yisroel Eichler, called Israel a “legal dictatorship.” So whatever the next vote’s result will be, don’t expect it to usher in an era of unity.
  • This race is still up for grabs. Beit Shemesh’s mayoral race attracted national attention because the city has become a test case for what happens when a formerly secular town gains a large haredi population — something that will happen across Israel as the haredi share of the population grows. Initial analysis of Abutbul’s win was that the loyal haredi voting bloc was too powerful to beat, and the next round will test that thesis.So while Cohen gets a second chance, the city is still nearly half haredi, and haredim have historically supported candidates from their communities in large numbers. When the re-vote comes, Cohen’s best shot at victory lies in either breaking off part of the haredi voting bloc or in running a strong get-out-the-vote operation among modern Orthodox and secular residents. Otherwise, Abutbul could very well win the same election twice — portending future haredi victories in other religiously mixed towns.
  • In the meantime, expect the barbs to keep flying. Ever since Beit Shemesh made headlines when a haredi resident spat on 8-year-old Naama Margolese in 2011, the city hasn’t exactly been known for civil discourse. Mutual recriminations abounded in the campaign this fall, with Cohen supporters alleging that Abutbul supporters physically attacked them, while Abutbul’s camp accused Cohen’s ads of falsifying the mayor’s record. After the election, Cohen supporters protested en masse demanding a re-vote. Now that, pending an appeal of the ruling, another election will take place, the campaign will likely be just as heated.

 

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