Jerusalem District Court will discuss on Tuesday appeals of the municipal elections results in Beit Shemesh. The appeals have been submitted by AG Yehuda Weinstein and the losing mayoral candidate Eli Cohen.
In his appeal, the AG cited the police investigation of alleged vote fraud in the city which is split among Haredi, Modern Orthodox and Secular residents. The picture presented by police, the AG wrote, is of serious, systematic and organized criminal activity, intended to influence the election results.
The AG’s appeal suggests the fraud operation was planned well in advance of election day, and included cajoling legal voters to hand over their ID cards to Haredi party operatives. The cards were collected from voters’ homes and in synagogues. Those cards were used on election day by impostors.
Police raided apartments where they discovered 120 ID cards and passports, as well as notes with voting station numbers. Police also found handkerchiefs, hats, wigs and glasses, possibly for use in altering the appearance of impostors so they could vote more than once.
In addition, a car belonging to a major Haredi political figure was found to contain some 40 ID cards. The driver told police he was part of a network that recruited imposter voters.
According to Weinstein, the small gap—956 votes, 2.7%—between the winning candidate, incumbent mayor Moshe Abutbul, who is associated with the Haredim in Beit Shemesh, and the challenger, Eli Cohen, associated with Jewish Home, suggests that Cohen’s victory may have been reached entirely through fraudulent voting.
Abutbul’s attorneys will ask the court to dismiss the appeals, or at least to move it to a civil court, which would enable them to cross examine police witnesses who were used in compiling the damning report.
Haredi newspapers on Monday called on their readers to pray for the success of Mayor Abutbul—Moshe ben Varda—who may have to face a repeat election.
For his part, Abutbul took the high road, warning his citizens against a “civil war” (the term in Hebrew is “brotherly war” – milchemet achim).
“It’s a shame that some political entities who refuse to accept the voter’s decision and are dragging Beit Shemesh towards a civil war,” he said. However, he added that he intends “to obey whatever decision the court reaches.”
Mayor Abutbul is a member of Shas. His deputy-mayor, Shmuel Greenberg, is a member of United Torah Judaism (UTJ). In the previous elections, Abutbul was able to attract moderate Orthodox voters by promising: “Beit Shemesh is not a Haredi city and will not be one.” Haredi parties won 10 out of the 21-seat municipal councilin 2009.
The modern city of Beit Shemesh, Jerusalem’s neighbor to the west, was established in 1952, by immigrants from Iran, Iraq, Romania, Morocco and Iraqi Kurdistan. In the 1990s, the city experienced an influx of immigrants from the former Soviet Union, Ethiopia, and from North America, the UK, South Africa and Australia.
In 2011 Haredim made up 40% of the population, according to the municipality, and 63% of the city’s schoolchildren in 2010 were Haredim.
Disputes between Haredi and Modern Orthodox Jews in Beit Shemesh have been capturing headlines for at least a decade, with a general sense that Haredi militants have been increasing their influence in this once sleepy city.
According to Ha’aretz, the population of Beit Shemesh is expected to reach 150,000 in 2020.