Analysis: Who’s afraid of absentee balloting in Israel?

More than 67 years after the state was founded, there is still a stigma about Israelis abroad.

An Israeli casts her ballot for the parliamentary election at a polling station  (photo credit: REUTERS)
An Israeli casts her ballot for the parliamentary election at a polling station
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Dozens of countries around the world have allowed their citizens who happen to be abroad on Election Day to vote by absentee for decades.
Practically speaking, absentee balloting is more necessary in a country like Israel, where elections are set three months in advance, than in the United States, where Americans know their presidential races will be held every four years in November.
So why is absentee balloting for Israelis such a controversial issue, and why have governments promised it for years and never delivered? To answer the first question, it is important to understand the ethos of Israeli society.
Despite their diversity, Israelis see themselves as united under a constant threat from their enemies.
Former American secretary of defense Robert Gates said there are more missiles in southern Lebanon aimed at Israel than there are in any place in the world, aimed at any place in the world. Then there are the threats from Iran, Syria, the Palestinians, etc.
Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid protested giving Israelis abroad the right to vote by telling Army Radio Wednesday morning that it was unfair that an Israeli living the good life in New Jersey (yes, he singled out New Jersey, not Miami Beach or Beverly Hills) would have the same rights as a soldier who just completed his service in the Gaza Strip.
More than 67 years after the state was founded, there is still a stigma about Israelis abroad, who avoid reserve duty, do not pay Israeli taxes, and live relatively trouble-free lives without bearing their share of the burden.
For many years, whenever the absentee balloting bill was proposed, it was referred to as “Chok Hayordim” – “the yordim bill,” with yordim a pejorative term for Israelis who “went down” to another country, the opposite of moving to Israel, which is called making aliya – “moving up.” Prime minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1976 famously called Israelis who leave the country “leftover weaklings,” and the “lowliest of parasites.”
When it was proposed in the last Knesset by Labor MK Nachman Shai, media started referring to it as the “Omri Casspi bill,” referring to the Sacramento Kings forward, who is known for being a mensch and proud Israeli who makes Israelis look good every time he touches the ball, serves his community, and delivered an Elsa doll to a little girl he was pushed into in the crowd at an NBA game.
Now the bill can no longer be called after Casspi, because the Likud talks about limiting absentee balloting to Israelis who have been abroad for less than five years. Under those terms, Casspi still wouldn’t get to vote. Shas has even proposed limiting absentee balloting to those who were only abroad for less than two months.
Though the stigma remains, the attitude to Israelis abroad has changed dramatically over time. Very few of them play professional sports, but there are plenty of hi-tech success stories and students at the world’s top universities who later bring their brain power back home.
So if Israelis abroad aren’t so bad anymore, why is the bill still so controversial? The answer could be overheard in a conversation at the Knesset Wednesday where an adviser to a politician warned that if it passed, the absentee balloting bill would guarantee that the Center-Left would never return to power.
Really? Are Israelis abroad that right-wing? If a coalition being formed by the Right wants the bill, perhaps they think they are. Chances are very few Israeli Arabs abroad would vote.
But if the bill is limited to Israelis abroad for less than five years, that would enable many leftist students and hi-tech workers to cast ballots. Those who moved to Berlin for cheaper chocolate pudding snacks would be enfranchised.
Then again, once the floodgates are opened, perhaps move veteran Israelis abroad would be given the right to vote later on. Then those arguing that it would hurt the Center-Left could have more of a leg to stand on.
That leads to the second question: Why has the bill never been passed? Because it’s complicated. Setting the criteria is complicated. Implementing the bill could be very complicated – and very expensive.
So although it’s news that the bill is in the coalition agreement, it has been in coalition agreements before, and chances are it will be in the next coalition agreement as well.
Israelis abroad will probably still have to come back home – at least for a day – to help decide the fate of their homeland.