Should ex-pats vote?

An arrangement enabling Israelis overseas to participate in our elections may be closer than ever.

vote now 88 (photo credit: )
vote now 88
(photo credit: )
The image of former Knesset speaker, former-Jewish Agency chairman and former-Labor leader Avrum Burg queuing up at the French Consulate in Tel Aviv to vote in the French presidential election of 2007 struck most Israelis as peculiar. Burg only received French citizenship, at his request, in 2006 because his wife Yael, in Israel since 1968, is a Strasbourg native. Burg quipped: "If a person can influence other countries in the world, why not?" His case is indeed extreme - and not only because of his tenuous ties to France. If the shoe were on the other foot, most Israelis would balk at the notion of allowing that sort of influence for quasi-Israelis abroad with only the flimsiest of ties to Zion. Yet some arrangement enabling Israelis overseas to participate in our elections may be closer than ever. Israel Beiteinu's Avigdor Lieberman insists on it, and Prime Minister-designate Binyamin Netanyahu has now reportedly given his consent. With no bill at hand yet, there are no detailed eligibility specifications. But, considering Israel's existential problems and highly polarized politics, it's doubtful they'd be anywhere as broadminded as the French. Lieberman isn't the first politician to campaign for Israeli suffrage abroad. Moshe Arens unsuccessfully sponsored a private member's bill in the same vein in 2002. Other legislative initiatives came from Reuven Rivlin and Eliezer Cohen. The logic behind these moves is to offset the increasing political clout of Israel's Arab citizens. Needless to say, this is hotly opposed on the Left. It should be noted that even now holders of Israeli passports who live 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 and members of the merchant marine - about 5,600 in all. Only 50% of these bothered to fulfill their civic duty last February. Israelis temporarily overseas for study or work-related reasons cannot vote - not even El Al crews or tourists away very briefly. The above examples aren't those that generate controversy. The real question is where to draw the line. For example, would spouses of long-absent expats be accorded Burg-like powers to tip our political scales? NOT ONLY do those still sometimes scornfully dubbed yordim not pay taxes here, they aren't exposed to the dangers which their political decisions may promote. They and their children don't do military service, for instance. They don't even ride our buses or frequent our marketplaces during terrorist spates. They won't pay the price of their preferences. This is true regarding socioeconomic issues as well. They would not have to directly pay for the consequences of their choices. In other words, at best they might become quintessential kibitzers; at worst, unconscionable meddlers. Many western democracies allow expatriate voting. American absentee ballots are available even to descendants of expats born abroad. Yet many American-born, US-tax paying Israelis don't exercise their right for a variety of laudable reasons. NOWHERE are the decisions required of voters as crucial and potentially as risky to life, limb and livelihood as here. Ordinary existence in Israel isn't always as easy as in other places, a fact which returns us to the moral quandary of permitting those who opted for opportunities elsewhere to decide how we here live. The sum total of Israeli ex-pats (Jews and Arabs) is about a million. Many were no more than transients for whom Israel was a provisional stopover. In all, only 245,000 Israeli passports are maintained abroad. It's impossible to judge the degree to which Israel remains their holders' focal point. There's no telling how many would bother travelling to an Israeli consulate in order to vote. Lieberman may be making much ado about nearly nothing. We have no objection to a mechanism that would grant the vote to Israelis who don't have dual citizenship, or those without permanent residence in other countries, as well as to those with clear fixed-term stays abroad. But in general, we are not enthusiastic about this proposal. The ballot mustn't be rendered a trivial means to maintain contact or stir up nostalgia. Certainly any change in Israel's policy toward expatriate voting needs to be pursued only after the most careful deliberation.