Beit Shemesh, Israel - Eli Cohen, who lost his bid to unseat Beit Shemesh’s haredi mayor Moshe Abutbul on Tuesday, may take legal action due to allegations of voter fraud, sources within his campaign have told The Jerusalem Post on Thursday.
Cohen lost to Abutbul by fewer than a thousand votes in an election that some have described as less a political conflict than a religious war.
A line of hundreds of cars filled with Cohen supporters stretching for blocks wound its way around Beit Shemesh on Thursday evening, on its way to a rally in front of the municipality. When it passed through the Ramat Beit Shemesh Alef neighborhood, haredim try to stop traffic, and hundreds of ultra-Orthodox Jews lined the road, held back by the police.
As the haredim chanted “Moshe Abutbul” and played his campaign song over loudspeakers, one Cohen supporter announced over speakers bolted to his car roof that Beit Shemesh would “not be haredi” and that if the ultra- Orthodox wanted an exclusively religious area, they should go to Jerusalem’s Mea She’arim neighborhood.
“Beit Shemesh will be multicultural” he declared.
Likewise in Ramat Beit Shemesh Bet, a more hardline haredi neighborhood, haredim lined the streets throwing ballots at vehicles, knocking on car windows, blocking traffic and holding up political banners.
Hundreds of unsupervised haredi children wandered through the streets as their parents held impromptu counter-protests against the convoy.
Outside the municipality, thousands of residents demonstrated against what they saw as electoral fraud, according to protest organizer Miri Shalem. She told the Post that they had taken to the streets in response to Wednesday’s arrests and confiscations of state-issued identification cards.
Police estimated the crowd at 1,000, although it appeared to be somewhere between 1,500 and 2,000 people.
“We are not giving up on Beit Shemesh,” the protesters chanted after Cohen, who stood on a stage across the street from the municipality with secular politicians from across the political spectrum, before breaking into the national anthem.
“There was no religious war,” Cohen told reporters during an impromptu press conference at a coffee shop near the protest. “There were only politicians who were using religion for their own ends. That, I cannot forgive.”
Police raided two apartments in Beit Shemesh during the municipal elections on Tuesday, arresting eight ultra- Orthodox people and confiscating more than 200 identification cards.
The Cohen campaign said that 30 people will be called in for questioning in connection with possible fraud on Friday.
The Post was unable to corroborate the claim.
Cohen told the Post that to his sorrow, “we know about more than 850 ballots they declared invalid,” and “many people came and were told they had already voted.
“We have a legal team checking this,” he said, noting that he would act according to whatever evidence he manages to gather, either ceasing his efforts or pursuing legal action.
Rumors abounded in Beit Shemesh on Thursday that Cohen had already petitioned the courts to have the election’s results thrown out, but a source close to the candidate denied this.
The source did say, however, that such action was being considered by residents, but he did not want to discuss it, as “they are still collecting information” regarding suspicious incidents.
Another source close to Cohen created an email account to receive complaints from voters regarding suspicious incidents. The source said she had received reports of people saying that they were turned away at the polls after being told that they had already voted.
“We’ve been getting all sorts of stories,” the source said, declining to provide more information before a decision was made on how to proceed.
“I support all efforts to investigate election fraud through the courts in order to make sure that the democratic outcome of the election is accurate,” MK Dov Lipman, a local resident and political opponent of the mayor, told the Post.
The elections were “a vote of confidence for me,” Abutbul said, calling on his opponents to respect the “rules of democracy.”
Lipman’s comments came after many national-religious residents turned to Facebook and blogs to vent their displeasure with the election’s results.
David Morris, founder of Lema’an Achai, a local charitable organization, typified the anger when he wrote that “Beit Shemesh should also be required to rerun the election, this time under close supervision by the national government and law enforcement forces.”
More than 4,000 residents signed a petition on Wednesday for the publication of election results to be delayed until the police investigated the election for additional fraud.
Another petition, calling for Beit Shemesh to be divided into a haredi city composed of Ramat Beit Shemesh Alef, Ramat Beit Shemesh Bet and the soon to be completed Ramat Beit Shemesh Gimmel, and a secular/national-religious old Beit Shemesh, garnered more than 1,600 signatures.
Interior Minister Gideon Sa’ar said he was considering the idea, which his predecessor Eli Yishai rejected as economically unfeasible.
Abutbul addressed calls for a split in the city by noting that he had enjoyed significant support in old Beit Shemesh and that Cohen had gathered significant support in Ramat Beit Shemesh, showing that the “city is actually multifaceted” and cannot be divided so easily.
The mayor panned the idea of “land swaps” or a “Berlin wall” in Beit Shemesh.
Abutbul said that he intended on bringing all parties, including Cohen’s, into his coalition.
“Beit Shemesh is going on a new path,” Abutbul said, explaining that he intended to “connect the representatives of all sectors” in order to “put the election behind us.”