Vote distant, vote different

For Israel, the effect of boom in overseas voters would be significant; 10% of Israelis live abroad.

An Israeli soldier chooses a ballot from behind a voting booth at an army base near the southern city of Ofakim March 15 (photo credit: REUTERS)
An Israeli soldier chooses a ballot from behind a voting booth at an army base near the southern city of Ofakim March 15
(photo credit: REUTERS)
N ot for the first time, a law has been proposed extending voting rights to overseas Israelis outside the small group — delegates on official state business — who presently can vote. Rather than enfranchising the whole expatriate population, the proposal adds only those who voted in the last election. But once the government has started a ball rolling, the ball tends to roll. For example, VAT started at 8% and look at it now.
There are two perspectives for weighing whether additional overseas voters are a good or a bad thing. There’s the individual voter’s point of view, and the nation’s.
Mr. Israeli overseas, of course, wants to vote. “What, did I die? Did I defect?” he says. “No, I hopped a plane to get a doctorate and I’ll be right back. Meanwhile I’m reading Israeli newspapers on line and I’m streaming Israeli newscasts. I’ll bet I can vote more intelligently than a lot of stay-at-home citizens who don’t know Ofir Akunis from Ofer Pines.”
I can understand wanting to vote. I’m an overseas American, and after 40 years here I’m still sending absentee ballots to the USA. But I feel there’s a difference. For one thing, Uncle Sam refuses ever to let go of your wallet. He doesn’t care if Israel is deducting National Insurance payments from the fees I charge my clients, he insists on receiving Social Security payments too. And income tax, if my earnings ever exceed middle class. And paperwork for all my bank accounts and savings. If he wants taxation over here, I want representation over there.
And besides Uncle Sam as taxman, there’s Uncle Sam as taskmaster. The elected officials of the USA are constantly telling Israel what to do about Israel’s own concerns. For sure I should have a voice in who those elected officials are. Maybe every Israeli should.
In contrast, Israelis overseas are not taxed by Israel forever, and Israel doesn’t tell their host governments what to do.
And while there’s no guarantee that the Israeli at home is a better informed voter than the Israeli overseas, there’s no doubt that staying informed overseas is harder. Overseas, moreover, you don’t have the benefit of refining your thoughts in unavoidable discussions with your in-laws, your co-workers, and your barber. To complicate things, each Israeli election — unlike America’s, where the two-party system means many voters could safely cast their ballots two or three elections in advance — teems with new parties and new alliances. Not to mention last-minute announcements like the de-rotation of Herzog and Livni, or the all-too-frank remark by Bibi about the crowds of Arab voters.
While the major arrival out of nowhere this year was the Kulanu party with 7.5% of the vote, 4.5% of Israel’s voters cast their ballots for quixotic parties that didn’t pass the electoral threshold. While the big parties and big media continually disparage these puny hopefuls, 189,000 citizens in all preferred them to the established parties and had every right to vote accordingly. The problem here is that even if some overseas voters are exactly the sort of people who would vote for the Hope for Change party or the Living with Dignity party, such parties, poor in funds, will almost certainly miss their share of the overseas vote for lack of international publicity.
From Israel’s point of view as a nation, the effect of a boom in overseas voters is more significant than it would be for the USA. Fewer than 3% of US citizens live overseas. For Israel, the number is more like 10%, and not many of them would be needed to swing a close election.
Aside from the harm to little startup parties, what would the political effect of the overseas voters be? Some say they would pull Israel toward nationalism because the Israelis overseas are numerically more Jewish, less Arab, than Israelis in Israel. In the long run, though, I believe that if Israeli expatriates see their country long enough through the eyes of foreign media, and rub shoulders long enough with westernized Arabs as harmless fellow occupants of neutral territory with no bone to pick, our expatriates may forget that, as Bibi Netanyahu says, “The Middle East is not the Middle West,” and their votes may express the same impatience with Israel’s security concerns that their overseas neighbors feel.
From the point of view of the nation, a good result from the over - seas voters – a vote that shows that being overseas hasn’t left them ill-in - formed or befuddled – would be a result that pretty closely matches the domestic vote – the way people vote who haven’t gone away. In other words, the whole expensive project of overseas voting should ideally make no difference. So for the sake of not hurting the feelings of the individual Israeli who happens to be abroad, is the exercise worth it?