With cyclical regularity, the issue of Israeli suffrage abroad reemerges to stir a temporary tempest in our national teacup. This week it happened again when Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman announced they would promote legislation to broaden voting rights to yet-unspecified categories of Israelis overseas.
The proposal’s chances – in its current incarnation, it is the pet project of Lieberman’s Israel Beiteinu faction – are exceedingly slim in this Knesset. Netanyahu committed to it as part of the coalition agreement.
Yet Lieberman is hardly the first politician to campaign for this cause, aimed in part at offsetting increasing Arab political clout. Former defense minister Moshe Arens unsuccessfully sponsored a private member’s bill in similar vein in 2002. Other legislative initiatives came from Reuven Rivlin and Eliezer Cohen.
Rattling the Cage: Bring on the expat votes
Fundamentally Freund: Hyphenated Israelis
Without even a preliminary bill at hand yet, there are no detailed eligibility requirements. But considering Israel’s existential problems and highly polarized politics, it’s doubtful they’d be anywhere as liberal as what some democracies allow.
The image of ex-Knesset speaker, ex-Jewish Agency chairman and ex-Labor leader Avraham Burg queuing up at the French Consulate in Tel Aviv to vote in the 2007 French presidential election is indelible for many Israelis. Burg only received French citizenship, at his request, in 2006 because his wife, Yael – in Israel since 1968 – is a Strasbourg native. “If a person can influence other countries in the world, why not?” he quipped.
Burg’s obviously most tenuous ties to France rendered his case extreme. The fact that France accorded someone like him a say-so in its affairs is unimaginable to Israelis. Most of us justifiably balk at the notion of allowing anything of the sort for quasi-Israelis abroad sporting only the flimsiest of ties to the homeland.
Even now, holders of Israeli passports resident abroad may vote, but they must travel here for the purpose. Lieberman wishes to enable them to cast ballots at Israeli consulates. This currently is the exclusive privilege of diplomats, emissaries and mariners – about 5,600 in all. Only 50 percent of them bothered to fulfill their civic duty in last year’s Knesset election.
Israelis overseas for limited study- or work-related durations cannot do likewise – not even El Al crews or tourists away very briefly. Voting rights needn’t necessarily be denied Israelis without dual citizenship or permanent residence in other countries or Israelis with clear fixed-term stays abroad.
YET THE above cases aren’t intrinsically those which engender controversy. The real question is where to draw the line. Would spouses of long-absent expats be accorded Burg-like powers to tip our political scales?
The number of foreign-resident Israelis – Jews and Arabs – is estimated at a million. Many were no more than transients for whom Israel was a provisional stopover. Only 245,000 Israeli passports are at all maintained abroad. It’s impossible to judge the degree to which Israel remains their holders’ focal point or how many would bother travelling to vote at an Israeli consulate.
Unambiguous guidelines must be devised to ascertain a tangible link to Israel before granting the vote overseas. Our ballots mustn’t be rendered trivial nostalgia-vehicles. Even a partial amendment of the status quo must only be attempted with utmost circumspection.
True, most Western democracies allow expatriate voting. American absentee ballots are available even to descendants of expats born abroad. However, nowhere are the decisions required of voters as crucial and potentially risky to life, limb and livelihood as here. Day-to-day existence in Israel isn’t always as trouble-free as in greener pastures, a fact which underscores the moral quandary of permitting Israelis who opted for opportunities elsewhere to decide how we here live.
Not only do those still sometimes scornfully dubbed yordim not pay taxes here, they aren’t exposed to the hazards which their political decisions may trigger or intensify. They and/or their children don’t do military service. They don’t routinely ride our buses or frequent our marketplaces during terrorist spates. They won’t pay the price of their political predilections. The repercussions of their choices would be no skin off their noses.
The Zionist enterprise is about the ingathering of the Jewish people in
their ancestral homeland – not a virtual ingathering in the Diaspora.
There can be no ballot-box influencing of that enterprise without
responsibility. The vote, in short, should be reserved for those who
live with the consequences.