Likud, Israel Beiteinu to push for absentee voting

Ayalon: This sort of bill will bring Israelis abroad closer to the state; uncertainty over eligibility.

Danny Ayalon 248.88 (photo credit: AP)
Danny Ayalon 248.88
(photo credit: AP)
Prime Minister-designate Binyamin Netanyahu and Israel Beiteinu chairman Avigdor Lieberman have decided to work together to advance a bill to allow Israelis overseas to vote in general elections, regardless of how long they have spent abroad. A senior Likud official told The Jerusalem Post the initiative was "irresponsible" because it could "encourage Israelis to leave the country." The move was designed to facilitate Lieberman's plan to allow 200,000 immigrants from the former Soviet Union, who made aliya and went back to their countries of origin, to vote for Israel Beiteinu, the official said. Political considerations? None whatsoever, they insist, only a strong desire to allow all Israelis to exercise their democratic rights, and to form another channel for strengthening relations with the Diaspora. Absentee ballot bills have been submitted to the Knesset several times over the past 13 years, but none ever became law. Now, as a right-wing government takes shape, Israel Beiteinu and the Likud decided on Thursday they have the support to pass the bill. It's long overdue, "but this time I hope we will have the political power to approve this bill, especially now while Israel is still celebrating its 60th anniversary," Israel Beiteinu MK Danny Ayalon, who recently stepped down as ambassador to the US, said on Sunday. "This sort of bill will bring Israelis abroad closer to Israel and will redefine their connection to the state. In addition, it will turn Israel into one of the progressive countries that allow their citizens abroad to participate in the political process," Ayalon continued. Unlike supporters of previous bills, Ayalon does not think the absentee ballots should be restricted to those whose lives still center on Israel, i.e., those who served in the army, paid taxes and were absent only for limited periods. "Once an Israeli, always an Israeli, and as someone who knows the mentality of the Israeli community in the US, I don't think the main measure should be whether someone is abroad for 20 or 30 years. On the contrary, maybe someone who has been abroad for 20 years will feel more connected to Israel, and will maybe even consider coming back if he is entitled to vote," he said. The first absentee ballot legislation was a private bill submitted by Likud MK Reuven Rivlin in 1996. It was approved in a preliminary reading in January 1997 with the support of then-prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu, but subsequently lost momentum and faded away. Former Likud MK Moshe Arens submitted the second absentee ballot bill in 2000. Arens also says he did not sponsor the bill in an attempt to strengthen the Right. "Maybe the reason this bill has never ripened into law is just simple neglect," Arens said. "There were times in Israel's history that not so many Israelis lived abroad, but nowadays there are hundreds of thousands of Israelis abroad and ten of thousands who are there for a limited period; for business reasons with Israeli companies, students, professors, El Al workers and young travelers after their military service. "These Israelis pay taxes, they served in the army and some work for companies that raise money for Israel, and so on. Preventing them from voting is wrong and it doesn't happen in any other democratic country," he said. Arens and most of those who came after him did not think that the right to vote abroad should be given to yordim, a derogatory term for Israelis who have left the country for good. The idea, he said, was to define which Israelis overseas were entitled to vote, in accordance to the connection they maintained with the country, especially when they were abroad for a limited time. "I think that the fact that Israelis' basic right of voting is taken away from them due to the fact that they are abroad is unacceptable," Arens said. Former National Union and Israel Beiteinu MK Eliezer Cohen, who tried to advance the same bill in the 16th Knesset, admits that the main reason for his efforts was the assumption it would bring more votes to the right-wing parties. "Most Likud MKs agreed with me, and I even convinced then-prime minister [Ariel] Sharon that this bill was essential, [both] for the relationship with the Diaspora and for the right-wing bloc. I was sure I was about to pass this bill, but several other MKs opposed it at the last moment," Cohen said. When Cohen submitted his bill, it was estimated that about 400,000 Israelis living abroad had the right to vote. Today the number is somewhere around 750,000. The cost of such a law back then was estimated at around $13 million per election. Postal voting was not considered, despite the fact that many Western countries employ it. While the Labor Party opposed such legislation in the past, former Labor MK Colette Avital, who handled foreign relations for her party and was ambassador to Portugal (1988-1992) and consul-general in New York City (1992-1996) before going into politics, thinks that Israelis who contribute to society, pay taxes and served in the army deserve to influence the nation's future. "We are still not France or America - we still face existential problems, and just as someone else says, 'There is no citizenship without loyalty' [Israel Beiteinu's campaign slogan], I say that people who haven't contributed to Israeli society are not entitled to vote in its elections," Avital said. "I don't think that people who moved to Brooklyn to open humous bars play a practical role in the Israeli reality."