A second chance for Beit Shemesh
Hebrew Media Review

A second chance for Beit Shemesh

Major newspapers get behind the decision to call new elections in divided town, which has ramifications for both corruption and a wider kulturkampf

Beit Shemesh residents protest in front of the municipality building after elections in November. (photo credit: Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Beit Shemesh residents protest in front of the municipality building after elections in November. (photo credit: Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

A court decision to void results from municipal elections in the central Israeli town of Beit Shemesh, a city which has become a metonym for secular-religious differences of opinion, to put it mildly, is the major news which unites all four front pages of major Hebrew-language dailies Friday.

The new elections, called after the attorney general recognized the large body of evidence pointing to electoral shenanigans, gets nearly across the board support in the papers, though one imagines that in the ultra-Orthodox press it’s likely a different story completely.

“The Beit Shemesh test,” heralds Yedioth Ahronoth, recognizing the ruling’s importance as part of a larger kulturkampf. The paper’s Nahum Barnea says the next round of elections will be the city’s last chance to turn away from its downward slide toward ultra ultra-Orthodoxy. “In Beit Shemesh the battle is especially important, because of the extreme, violent nature of some of the Haredi residents, who came to the city in the last few years,” he writes. “The non-Haredi candidate, Eli Cohen, is perhaps Beit Shemesh’s last chance to not fall into the hands of enemies of the state.”

Maariv, which had made the issue one of its major projects of 2013, skips the big ol’ 63-point headline and instead leads off with a picture from the city and two op-eds, both praising the important decision, which dealt a blow not only to Haredi hegemony, but also corruption at the local level. “What happened yesterday was not just a dramatic ruling in the framework of the cultural battle which is happening in Beit Shemesh, as well as other Israeli cities, but a precedent-setting ethical-judicial ruling to fix the moral integrity of government,” writes Baruch Kara. “Even if at the end [Haredi mayor] Moshe Abutbul wins again (it will be interesting to see by how much) the ruling will enter the pantheon of decisions in the battle against government corruption.”

In Haaretz, Nir Hasson notes that the battle may be won, but a larger war of the future of Beit Shemesh (pluralistic or ultra-Orthodox) is still raging, and received a blow last week when 6,000 new housing units were approved in the Ramat Beit Shemesh neighborhood, the main Haredi stronghold.

“The assumption is that if Abutbul wins again, every one of the 6,000 units will be occupied by Haredi families, thus ending once and for all the city’s secular majority and its chance of remaining a pluralistic city,” he writes.

Israel Hayom, writing about the celebration victories by secular and national religious in the city Thursday, also reports on reactions from Haredim, who are, as you can guess, none too pleased.

“This is racism,” says one person close to Abutbul. “We feel like we are living in exile among the Jews.”

The ultra-Orthodox weren’t the only ones fuming on Thursday. Yedioth Ahronoth reports that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s scheme of releasing prisoners and building settlement housing as compensation is quickly losing popularity, even among settlers. “It’s not right to link these two things,” the paper quotes Finance Minister Yair Lapid saying. Yoaz Hendel, a former Netanyahu confidante who now writes for the paper, says Netanyahu made a terrible mistake when he picked releasing terrorists over freezing construction.

“A freeze comes with a reversible political cost – but releasing terrorists has an irreversible ethical cost. [The decision] runs contrary to Israeli interests and regulations, and comes from a lack of clear policies,” he writes

The Palestinians, who are getting their old murderers back, are also unpleased, reports Israel Hayom. “The moves by the State of Israel are impossible to accept,” says Nabil Abu Rdeinah, a PLO official. “The peace process is at risk.”

In the op-ed page, Haaretz’s Yoel Marcus says a new intifada may not be in the offing, but the peace talks, with the attendant prisoner releases, have not been kind to Israel.

“As the third prisoner release approaches, one notices a rise in terror event,” he notes. “Six Israelis have been murdered since the negotiations with the Palestinians were renewed, and there were some 600 other violent nationalistic events. Netanyahu promised to keep the calm with a strong hand. Still, one fears a new reality of Palestinian terror attacks during the day and IDF operations at night. A few shots here and there, and Israeli retaliation or reserve.”

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