Interior Minister Gideon Sa’ar on Tuesday scheduled new elections for Beit Shemesh for March 11, shortly after the High Court of Justice paved the way for the new vote by rejecting an appeal by incumbent Mayor Moshe Abutbul against a Jerusalem District Court ruling from December.
In his decision Judge Uzi Fogelman wrote that the residents of the central Israeli town of Beit Shemesh had “fallen victim to a well-organized, systematic and widespread law-breaking scheme to sway the results of the mayoral and city council elections.”
The decision came on the same day that the High Court ordered new mayoral elections in Nazareth due to fraudulent ballots. The new Nazareth vote was also scheduled for March 11.
The original decision on Beit Shemesh by the Jerusalem District Court came after Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein and secular mayoral candidate Eli Cohen, who lost to ultra-Orthodox Abutbul of Shas by a narrow margin in October’s election, appealed the results over allegations of widespread fraud.
Police had discovered hundreds of 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. Investigators suspected 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.
The Jerusalem court voided the election results, ruling that evidence collected by police pointed to election fraud that was organized and pre-planned “to the point of being systematic and even an ‘industry.’”
Abutbul and Shas appealed the decision.
In his decision Tuesday, Fogelman noted that the evidence of voter fraud was extensive and “disturbing” in its scope, and that the election’s results may very well have been affected. Therefore he saw no reason to change the lower court’s ruling.
Fogelman also called on police to swiftly complete their investigation and take the appropriate steps against those responsible, saying their actions “undermine the foundations of democracy.”
Shas has maintained that Abutbul’s election was legitimate, claiming the December court decision was the result of a media smear campaign.
The election results are particularly sensitive in volatile Beit Shemesh, which is has become deeply divided in recent years between the secular population and a burgeoning Haredi community. Tensions in the city have led to several violent incidents, mostly by ultra-Orthodox men toward women and girls they deemed immodest.
In Nazareth, Attorney General Weinstein said a post-election investigation conducted jointly by the Interior Ministry, Prisons Service and Justice Ministry revealed that at least 11 ballots were cast in the Nazareth municipal election by individuals who were either under arrest or out of the country and thus could not have voted on election day, October 22.
Incumbent Ramez Jaraisi beat out challenger Ali Salam by just nine points in that poll. A handful of fraudulent ballots may have been enough to decide the vote.