It seems that I will not be the first to call and congratulate Moshe Abutbol on his assumed victory in the Beit Shemesh election. Indeed this is not going to happen until the facts of what happened last Tuesday are clarified.
I am somewhat of a skeptic, and as such believe that the bar we will have to cross in order for a court to intervene in our election will be high. By way of example from previous Beit Shemesh elections, when Zvi Wolicki, a former council member and longtime local activist, collated evidence of 38 election frauds during the last election in 2008, the judge responded that you need to take this into account as part of the process. If this were a commercial suite, I would probably even be advising not to proceed at this stage.
Over and above the legal pros and cons there will be accusations that Eli Cohen’s supporters are acting out of sour grapes, showing an inability to lose like “men” and accept the democratic will of the people.
So why then is it the right thing to continue investigating and lobbying for a full enquiry as to the validity of Moshe Abutbol’s apparent election victory? What is it that we are trying to achieve?
The election campaign in Beit Shemesh, in spite of the hollow claims made by the mayor and his chief campaign adviser to the contrary, was ugly, and in many instances crossed the line of morality and legality. There is no doubt that this created an environment of increased tension ahead of the election itself. We worked very hard with an incredible group of local volunteers who agreed to act in an official capacity in the polling stations and were ready for the task ahead.
Right from the start of the day, reports started feeding through of attempts to defraud the process, whether through the systematic tampering with Eli Cohen’s voting slips or a myriad of other known and new tricks. Even prior to the raid later in the afternoon, the police were called and indeed arrested several election officials (none of whom represented parties aligned with Eli). The peak of this activity was indeed the police raid, which resulted in several arrests, the discovery of hundreds of identity cards and apparent disguises. In addition to those that the police managed to arrest there were many others who ran from the scene.
One final ingredient into the cholent of bad feeling and anger is the cynical tactic of a third candidate, Meir Balai’sh, who was a clear Trojan Horse for the mayor, deflecting votes to him, whilst presenting himself as a genuine candidate for Mayor. I am no legal expert, so it is possible that this type of arrangement may indeed be legal, but it certainly stinks. Funnily enough, Mr Bala’ish is not the most popular guy in the non-Haredi neighbourhoods of Beit Shemesh!
As the vote count reached its peak well into the early hours of Wednesday it became clear that the final tally would be very close, and indeed at this point, with the final count of the soldiers, the Mayor received fewer than 1,000 more votes than Eli Cohen.
In order for a legal claim to be successful, there will need to be an enormous amount of evidence to show that the final result was influenced conclusively by election fraud. So why then, in the face of such difficult odds, is the Zionist block continuing with this fight?
Corruption in politics in general, and within the municipal arena has become a fact of life for most people in Israel. However in the same way as the Beit Shemesh community was not prepared to put up with the intimidation, exploited by the Mayor in an effort to stop the opening of the Orot Banot school two years ago, we are not prepared to accept that this type of corruption, and at what may turn out to be on such a systematic and organized basis, form part of our normative political and public life in Israel.
I have to add one small ironic detail, which while not directly germane to our sorry story of fraud, gives some backdrop to the situation in Beit Shemesh whereby at best the current Mayor has received a small mandate almost exclusively from only a certain section of the population. In Tel Aviv, where the heart of liberal democracy beats hard, the voter turnout was a worrying 22%, whereas in certain polling stations in Beit Shemesh where the voters are not exactly the strongest proponents of Western democratic values, the voter turn-out was well over 80%.
Why is this relevant? I have claimed previously that Beit Shemesh represents a microcosm of Israeli society, including some of its key internal challenges. Voter apathy, and the problem that this represents for our form of representative government, is made all the more acute, once you factor in the fact that the very sections of the population who see democracy as, at best, a necessary evil associated with living in Israel, know how best to maximize their exploitation of the democratic process. Don’t say I did not warn you!
In any event, back to the developing legal challenge to the mayoral election results in Beit Shemesh. I feel very strongly that once there is a suggestion of foul play in the form of election rigging or fraud, there is an enormous moral hazard of ignoring this and moving on as if nothing happened. The moral hazard becomes all the more critical when it pits not only political groups one against the other, but also communities and whole sections of society against one another.
When I make the call to Moshe Abutbol and congratulate him on achieving a second term as Mayor of Beit Shemesh (if that is the outcome) I want to be able to do so at the same time as looking at my children and wider community and say that you do not have to cheat to be in the game.
Somebody has to lead the fight to ensure that public life is not plagued with chronic corruption, and if we, the people of Beit Shemesh have to be at the forefront of that fight, then we are ready. My Dad taught me not to be a bad loser, and I do not intend to start now.