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North American university students have been given the opportunity to vote in Israel's national elections - a mock version run by Israel Votes, a program designed to educate foreigners about Israeli democracy.
Polls opened on Monday for the program's third mock election since its creation in 2003, and will remain open until February 10, the date of the real elections. Israel Votes will be accepting votes from 85 participating institutions in the United States and Canada.
"Israelvotes2009.com gives students a window into Israel's vibrant democracy in the best way imaginable: by letting them participate," says Eric Esses, mastermind behind the Israel Votes project and cofounder of Upstart Ideas, a Jerusalem-based education and advocacy organization.
"Students learn about Israel's parliamentary system, the issues and the key political players, then get to vote on-line," he explained.
In addition to voting, the Web site provides students with background information on the country's electoral process, platforms of parties and candidates, and the history of Israeli elections.
On the site's home page, major parties and candidates are introduced with pithy computer-generated posters that poke fun at stereotypes of candidates and their party platforms.
"Stayin' Alive?" is the title of Labor chairman Ehud Barak's informational poster. Others include "He can talk the talk, but can he walk the walk?" for Likud leader Binyamin Netanyahu, and "Doing the democracy dance!" for Arab parties Hadash, United Arab List-Ta'al and Balad.
"It's crucial to help people see Israel beyond the headlines and negative images in the media," says Nathan Ciccolo, an organizer of Israel Votes at Northeastern University. "What happens on these campuses makes a difference and influences people who could be the leaders of tomorrow."
Israel Votes was active during both the 2003 and 2006 national elections. In 2003, the Web site received 16,000 votes from over 70 campuses. In the 2006 elections, the number of voters rose to 20,000, according to the site.
The initiative is run in conjunction with a number of Jewish on-campus organizations, including Hasbara Fellowships and the Israel Campus Coalition.
Upstart Ideas is responsible for the actual on-line voting process and for site content, while partners of the project have provided lectures, workshops and handouts.