Residents of Beit Shemesh will cast ballots in municipal elections for a second time, after a court on Thursday voided the original results over claims of electoral misconduct.
Anticipating disquiet in the aftermath of the court’s decision, border police were being deployed to Beit Shemesh on Thursday afternoon.
The decision by the Jerusalem District Court came after Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein and secular mayoral candidate Eli Cohen, who lost October’s municipal elections by a narrow margin, went to court over allegations of widespread fraud.
A police investigation into allegations that some supporters of ultra-Orthodox Mayor Moshe Abutbul had voted multiple times led the court to repeal the results of the vote and call for reelections.
Abutbul, the incumbent, is an ultra-Orthodox rabbi and ran as the Shas party’s candidate. He defeated his challenger Cohen, who represented secular and religious-Zionist residents, by fewer than 1,000 votes.
On Thursday afternoon, Cohen lauded the court’s decision, saying that “democracy and justice have prevailed.”
Also commenting on the decision was Labor Party Chairman Yitzhak Herzog, who said it was “a great victory for democracy.”
Praising the court for its loyalty to “transparency and integrity,” Herzog said the decision would allow Beit Shemesh residents to “choose a mayor free from outside influence.”
As some residents of Beit Shemesh celebrated the announcement, Shas chairman Aryeh Deri expressed his disappointment.
“I regret that the esteemed court chose to rely on a media campaign and repealed the democratic decision of the people of Beit Shemesh,” Deri said. He added that following consultation with legal experts, Shas planned to appeal the decision.
The court ruled that the evidence collected in recent weeks by police shows that the election fraud was organized and pre-planned “to the point of being systematic and even an ‘industry.’”
MK Yisrael Eichler of the United Torah Judaism party also criticized the court’s decision, likening the Israeli legal system to the “judiciary dictatorship in Egypt.”
Comparing the “secular regime” to Egypt’s military government, Eichler warned that being ultra-Orthodox would be “outlawed” in Israel just like the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.
“We’ll win the reelection as well,” Eichler predicted.
MK Ya’acov Litzman, also of UTJ, said the court’s decision dealt a “mortal blow” to Israeli democracy.
“It is lamentable that in 2013, the Israeli legal system is driven by media pressure,” Litzman said.
Insisting that Abutbul had been elected “by law,” Litzman said his party would continue to support him.
Last month, officials speaking anonymously to Israel Radio cited the growing body of evidence related to instances of fraud, including the discovery of some 200 identity cards in an apartment and car believed to belong to Abutbul supporters, as well as a cache of clothing that apparently served to disguise individuals who voted multiple times on election day.
Two suspects were arrested and at least eight more were questioned in connection with the suspicions.
In light of the close vote and evidence of fraud, and after holding several meetings on the issue in his office in recent weeks, the attorney general appealed the vote and asked the courts to order a new municipal election.
Investigators suspect that Shaya Brand, an associate of Abutbul, allegedly organized a plan to identify nonvoters and pay them for their identity cards, so that Abutbul supporters could use them to cast fraudulent votes, police spokesperson Micky Rosenfeld has said.
In November, some 2,000 Beit Shemesh residents protested outside of city hall, calling for the nullification of the election results due to the voting irregularities.
Beit Shemesh, a city of 75,000 southwest of Jerusalem, has become deeply internally divided in recent years as neighborhoods have seen a large influx of ultra-Orthodox residents.
The city has been the scene of sometimes violent tensions between the Haredi population and other residents. In 2011, eight-year-old Naama Margolese was spat on and insulted by ultra-Orthodox men when walking to her school at the edge of an ultra-Orthodox neighborhood, bringing national and international attention to the tensions in the city.
In July 2012, a young girl was forced by ultra-Orthodox passengers to sit at the back of a bus in the city. A judge ruled that gender segregation on a public bus was illegal and it was the driver’s responsibility to prevent it.
In July of this year, a group of Haredi men reportedly smashed the windows of a bus after a woman refused to give up her seat and sit in the back.
Haviv Rettig Gur contributed to this report.