Beit Shemesh’s Eli Cohen to JTA: “When I’m mayor…”

Israel’s municipal elections ended one week ago, but Eli Cohen is still running.

When the votes came in last Tuesday, Cohen lost a close race to be the mayor of Beit Shemesh – a central Israeli city that has, in recent years, served as a microcosm of Israel’s increasingly tense haredi-secular divide.


The consensus candidate for the city’s Modern Orthodox and secular communities, Cohen ran a campaign criticizing haredi Mayor Moshe Abutbul for serving only the city’s haredi sector. But Tuesday’s results showed the haredi bloc giving Abutbul a solid victory – 52 percent to 47.

There’s just one problem: Cohen is calling Abutbul’s win unkosher, and he’s not alone. Police uncovered 200 fake IDs on Election Day that, they suspected, Abutbul supporters would use to fake votes. Cohen says that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Thousands of Beit Shemesh residents turned out to protest the results last Thursday, and a similar rally is planned for Tuesday.

So when Cohen sat down with me to talk about the campaign, the election and his plans for Beit Shemesh, he spoke as a man who intends to be mayor, this year, no matter what the final tally says.

JTA: You’ve lost a close election after a heated campaign. Where do you see yourself going from here?

EC: What happened needs to be cleared up, and after it I hope we can embark together on a new path. This was a struggle that was supposed to be about the municipality and professionalism, and the mayor turned it into a religious war. And in the name of religion, you can do anything to win elections. The mayor needs to call for an investigation so these things don’t happen in Beit Shemesh. If election fraud happened, it needs to trouble everyone.

JTA: Do you think there was enough fraud on Election Day to swing the vote in your favor? The police found only 200 fake IDs.

EC: Maybe there are a thousand. How do you know?  This is the democratic basis of the existence of Israeli society. Even if it seems like I will lose, that doesn’t mean that there was a pure election process in Beit Shemesh.

There are complaints to the police of things that happened on Election Day. They couldn’t find ballots, there was a delay in registration, people came who had already voted.

There’s no incitement here. There’s a call for a clean election. This demonstration [on Tuesday] will ask for the law to be enforced equitably and cleanly. That’s the goal, nothing else.

JTA: If you were to become mayor, how would you bridge the gap between your supporters and the city’s haredi community?

EC: No one thought I’d be able to unite the entire non-haredi sector. We united it. No one says the blocs have to be haredi and non-haredi. When I’m mayor, these blocs will break and the question will be who will be best for Beit Shemesh. I come to serve all the people. I see in the haredi leadership partners against the extremists.

I’ll use every means to fight the extremists who hurt the communal life of haredim and of Beit Shemesh in general.

JTA: Did you reach out to haredi leaders during the campaign?

EC: I tried many times, unfortunately without success. I met with many rabbis. I spoke with haredi politicians. It didn’t come clear on the ballot but I know what they think of me and everyone else.

JTA: You’ve accused Mayor Abutbul of turning a local race into a national fight. Doesn’t the support you receive from national politicians also raise tensions?

EC: I chose an independent list to get to the position I am in, where I have the support of the entire political rainbow. I wanted the discussion to be local.

My first loyalties are to clean the garbage up in Beit Shemesh, to make it clean and green. You need a good mayor. You need to come with real plans.

Beit Shemesh has become a microcosm of Israeli society. I represent the traditional Israeli who wants to live in a Zionist state and knows to respect the religious needs of the haredi sector. Beit Shemesh can be an example of all of the communities living in peace.

JTA: What will you do if you don’t become mayor following a police investigation?

EC: I’ll be a city councilman and I’ll cooperate for the betterment of Beit Shemesh. Beit Shemesh is more important than Abutbul and Eli Cohen. I don’t need to get along with Abutbul. I need to get along with Beit Shemesh.

Ben Sales is JTA’s Israel correspondent. He reports on Israeli politics, culture, society and economics, in addition to covering Palestinian and regional affairs. A graduate of Washington University in St. Louis and the Columbia University Journalism School, he is the former editor-in-chief of New Voices, the national Jewish student magazine.