The Degel Hatorah wing of the Lithuanian-haredi United Torah Judaism (UTJ) party will decide within the coming days whether to run their own candidate in the Beit Shemesh mayoral elections next October.
While Shas representative Moshe Abutbul has served as Beit Shemesh Mayor since 2008, the Degel Hatorah faction is debating whether to run its own candidate as Beit Shemesh's Lithuanian-haredi population continues to climb.
The haredi Kikar Hashabbat website reported on Monday that Degel Hatorah representatives met with Council of Torah Sages head Rabbi Haim Kanievsky on Monday and asked him to make the decision, adding that a large number of top Lithuanian-haredi rabbis will demand that Abutbul drop out of the race if Rabbi Kanievsky gives the go ahead.
The United Torah Judaism (UTJ) party consists of two separate Ashkenazic-haredi parties, Degel HaTorah and Agudat Israel, which joined together prior to the 1992 elections.
A decision by Degel Hatorah to run its own candidate would shatter the united haredi front that swept Abutbul to victory during a hotly contested 2013 race and is expected to set off a round of ugly infighting within the haredi political establishment.
In January, Shas head Aryeh Deri made a high-profile visit to Beit Shemesh in what was perceived in the haredi media as a show of support for Abutbul. During a joint press conference, Deri had called on UTJ leaders to unite behind Abutbul, a move which he contended would ensure that Beit Shemesh retained its haredi leadership.
"I call on (UTJ leaders) Moshe Gafni and Meir Porush to join in this move for Beit Shemesh...we owe Abutbul gratitude for what he has done for Beit Shemesh," said Deri.
Deri also hinted that matters would get ugly should UTJ float its own candidate."Moshe Abutbul will be the mayor here. If it does not work in a peaceful way then so be it," said Deri.
Beit Shemesh's previous elections in 2013 were marred by widespread allegations of electoral fraud amid a contentious campaign that was seen as a battle over the city's increasingly haredi image.
On election day itself, police arrested several haredi 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.