'Israelis abroad should vote'

PM backs Israel Beiteinu bill which would "help shape Israel's identity."

By BY REBECCA ANNA STOIL, GIL STERN STERN HOFFMAN
February 9, 2010 02:08
4 minute read.
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu

Bibi smiling and pointing 311 ap. (photo credit: Associated Press)

 
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Israelis living overseas could vote in the next parliamentary elections for the first time if a proposal announced Monday afternoon by Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and initiated at the behest of Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman becomes law.

Speaking during the Likud faction meeting, Netanyahu said that he will submit a bill that would allow all Israeli citizens overseas to participate in elections, arguing that such a bill “will add to the connection with and to the strength of Israel.”

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Less than a half-hour following Netanyahu’s announcement, Lieberman held a faction meeting that soon turned into a press conference, during which he said, “there are many things in our coalition agreement that we intend to fulfill,” and stressed that “the law that will enable Israelis overseas to vote will come up in April.”

The expansion of franchise is part of Netanyahu’s coalition agreement with the Israel Beiteinu party, which states that such a bill “will be filed at the Knesset within one year of the establishment of the government” – a clause leaving would-be sponsors slightly over six weeks to fulfill the obligation.

Israel does not allow citizens abroad to vote in any election. The only exceptions made are for mariners and diplomatic personnel – with both groups estimated to total around 5,000 votes. According to the Central Bureau of Statistics, over 500,000 Israelis who are eligible to vote were overseas during last year’s general election and thus could not cast a ballot.

But even within the Likud, while there was broad support for the bill, there were also differences of opinion regarding the “conditions and considerations” that would be included in the law, particularly surrounding the question of which voters had a strong enough connection to Israel.

Intelligence Affairs Minister Dan Meridor and Minister-without-Portfolio Benny Begin were among those who pushed for the narrowest possible scope of enfranchisement.



“There are a number of possible criteria that could demonstrate a connection to Israel – military service, how often they visit, whether they pay taxes, own property or serve in the reserves,” said Government Services Minister Michael Eitan.

“It could be one or a combination of a number of the conditions. This bill is a message to them that we consider you a part of us. It would be a small number of voters but a large impact on Israel reaching out to them.”

But some coalition partners were less certain regarding the bill’s purpose.

“There are a half-million people who have passports overseas,” said Minority Affairs Minister Avishay Braverman, who himself lived overseas for over a decade. “I think they have to be here. This bill won’t strengthen Israel – it will weaken Israel.”

Labor Chairman Ehud Barak, when asked in the hallway by a child of an Israeli living abroad why his father should not be able to vote, replied, “he should come here and start paying National Insurance Institute funds.”

But later in a private conversation, Barak said that, “this is a bill that requires some thought – whether it should be automatic and apply to people who were citizens until the 1960’s but haven’t thought about the country since then, or just people who pay NII should be considered. Israel is a state that people made sacrifices to be a part of, so the answer is not so simple.”

Barak’s willingness to even consider the proposal
constituted a departure from Labor’s traditional stance on the subject. Nearly a half-dozen similar initiatives have been proposed in the past two decades, but none of them have advanced into law, some because of Labor’s staunch opposition.

Extending the vote to Israelis overseas is expected to give a leg up to the right-wing of the political spectrum. In the World Zionist Organization, for example, the largest political body is Mizrahi, which includes Israel’s Habayit Hayehudi and National Union factions.

Among coalition members, Habayit Hayehudi is
an enthusiastic supporter of the initiative, while Shas, which commands a weighty 11 votes, has dragged its feet in responding to the announcement. Individual Shas representatives expressed discomfort with any broad-reaching plan that would enfranchise those who have not lived in Israel for long periods.

The opposition, which has not found a big-ticket
issue upon which to base its struggle against the government, jumped at the opportunity, with party leaders filing a no-confidence motion on the subject Monday evening.

“The prime minister intends to allow people who do not live in Israel to vote in elections and to determine the fate of those who live here,” complained party officials in the no-confidence motion. Officials emphasized that “all decisions regarding the future of Israel must be determined only by those who chose to live here.”

“The right to determine what happens in the country should be reserved only for those who chose to invest their future here,” said opposition leader Tzipi Livni (Kadima). “The prime minister, in the course of his first year in office as well as today, has proven that he is willing to sell the country’s future to his political partners in order to maintain his coalition.”

Meretz Chairman Haim Oron said that “it is surprising to discover which law initiatives our ultra-patriots are promoting. Just one week ago, they were concerned with delegitimizing the members of the Israeli left for receiving donations from overseas, and now they are working to allow those who have left to vote.

“It is appropriate for the leadership and face of the country to be determined only by those who live there. Life is not a talk-back,” added the veteran MK.

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