After months of waiting and acrimony on both sides, candidates to lead the city of Beit Shemesh will face off for a second time next Tuesday. The elections, said Jewish Home MK Ayelet Shaked, are so close that “the decision as to who wins may come down to just a few votes.”
The elections pit incumbent Moshe Abutbul, identified with the hareidi community, against Eli Cohen, championed by the secular and most of the Religious Zionist community. The High Court in February upheld a lower court’s decision in favor of reelections, due to allegations of fraud during the municipal elections in the city in 2013. Abutbul, who won the 2013 vote, had appealed against the court order to hold new elections. Abutbul argued that the 2013 elections represented the democratic choice made by Beit Shemesh residents.
The elections were ordered by a lower court after allegations of fraud in the election last October, with residents claiming that they had witnessed fraud. On election day itself, police arrested several hareidi-religious men in possession of an estimated 200 fake ID cards, which they had apparently been using to cast fraudulent votes. In addition, several residents said after the elections that when they had come to vote, they had been wrongly told that they had already voted.
The revelations triggered an outcry among local residents - in particular supporters of Abutbul's rival, Eli Cohen, who lost out to the hareidi incumbent by a mere 956 votes - who called for an immediate rerun of the election, accusing Abutbul and his supporters of conducting a large-scale voting scam.
Many secular and Religious-Zionists residents of Beit Shemesh have been bristling over the way Abutbul has been managing the city throughout his term, claiming that he favors hareidi groups, and has engineered the allocation of housing tenders to ensure a solid hareidi majority. There have been numerous incidents of tension between the hareidi and non-hareidi communities over the past several years.
Touring Beit Shemesh Thursday, Shaked said that “these elections will determine the identity of the city in the coming years. Every vote is important. Evey Beit Shemesh resident must take personal responsibility for the situation, and go out to vote, bringing change to the city.”
Shaked was accompanied on her tour by candidate Cohen. “I was happy to host Ayelet Shaked, who has been working day and night to show her support for the city,” said Cohen. “The residents welcomed her and thanked her for her help, and for enhancing Israeli society.”