Abutbul (right) and Cohen in the court
Abutbul (right) and Cohen in the court Flash 90

Hareidi parties were angered by the court decision Thursday to hold new elections in the city of Beit Shemesh, following evidence of large-scale vote rigging in October's municipal elections. Mayor Moshe Abutbul (Shas) announced that he would appeal the verdict to the Supreme Court after studying it. "I believe in the judicial system but I do not accept the verdict," he stated.

"I am saddened by the fact that the honorable court decided to follow a media campaign and cancelled the democratic decision of the residents of Beit Shemesh,” said Shas Chairman Aryeh Deri. Abutbul, who was the incumbent, won a second term in office by a small margin in the now-anulled vote. 

Deri expressed confidence that Abutbul would be victorious again in the revote, “and by a larger margin.”

The city is acrimoniously divided between hareidim, including a number of extremists, on one side, and Zionists, both religious and secular, on the other. The division was reflected Thursday in the political reactions to the court decision. 

MK Yisrael Eichler (United Torah Judaism, or UTJ) said that the decision to strike down the election results “proves that there is no difference between the judicial dictatorship in Egypt and the judicial dictatorship in Israel.”

"One day,” he predicted bitterly, “the secular regime will declare hareidim illegal, just as was done in Egypt [to the Muslim Brotherhood]. Everything will be done in the name of democracy... The regimes of Putin and the Egyptian Supreme Court President also find exquisitely democratic excuses for taking out their rivals and trampling human rights in the name of 'enlightenment',” he added.

UTJ Chairman, MK Menachem Eliezer Mozes, said that the court ruling “smells of surrendering to the media,” and MK Uri Makleb (UTJ) called the ruling “unprecedented, corrupt and racist, with no legal basis.”

The single hareidi MK to voice pleasure with the verdict, predictably, was the secularist Yesh Atid's MK Dov Lipman, who hails from Beit Shemesh and whose political career owes much to the struggle against hareidi extremists there.

"For several years we have been fighting for the identity of the city of Beit Shemesh, a microcosm of the entire Israeli society,” he said. "For now, we will concentrate on the new elections' being completely clean and democratic. The winner of the election will be agreed upon and accepted by the entire population of the city, regardless of his religious affiliation, based on the knowledge that he was elected fairly and in accordance with the laws of the state of Israel.”

MK Shuli Moallem (Jewish Home) said that the court decision was “courageous” and called for the new elections to be held “with full transparency, without fraud, tricks or shticks.”

Eli Cohen, the secular candidate who was endorsed by both Yesh Atid and Jewish Home, as well as other Zionist parties, proclaimed that justice had been victorious. “I am glad to see that in Beit Shemesh, democracy has won. Sound society and the honest norm have won.”

"Now, for the sake of the residents of all of Beit Shemesh, we must leave the past behind and work together for the city,” he said. “I believe in unity and mutual respect, and I will do everything to make the bad blood between the sectors subside, so that we can cleanly approach a sound, orderly democratic process. In the spirit of Jewish values, for the dignity of all people, we will continue to respect everyone and work to fix what needs fixing.”

On election day, 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.

Votes for the city council were just as tight, where 19 councilors represent 9 different parties: a shift of 1,398 votes could change the entire makeup of the city council.