A Dangerous Election Game

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman announced this week that they would promote legislation enabling Israeli citizens residing abroad to vote in Knesset elections from the countries they live in. The idea isn't new. It is brought up every few years by right-wing politicians hoping to achieve two goals: to weaken the argument that demographics force the partition of the Land of Israel to keep the state Jewish and democratic; and to perpetuate the right-wing parties' majority in the Knesset, on the assumption that most Israelis who emigrate hold nationalistic views.

Netanyahu justified the idea by saying there are many countries which allow their expatriates to vote from the countries where they live - and it is indeed true that democracies like the United States, Britain and France do so, but circumstances are different in Israel.

The proportion of Israelis who have emigrated is far higher than in the Western democracies. The hardships of life in Israel arising from the conflict with the Arabs, high taxation and social divisions create a gap between those who choose to live here and to carry the yoke, and those Israelis who have preferred to make their lives in North America or Western Europe, or who have returned to their countries of origin elsewhere.

The existing electoral system expresses a striving to achieve a balance between civil rights and duties: Those who live in Israel, pay taxes and serve in the army (or are legally exempt) have the right to vote and thereby affect decisions on war and peace and on the economic system.

Israelis living abroad maintain that right; they can come here on Election Day and cast their ballots. By undertaking the symbolic burden of the journey to Israel, they are expressing their readiness to make an effort so they can have an impact.

The current system does discriminate between official envoys, who can cast their votes at Israeli legations where they live, and students abroad or the representatives of commercial companies, who cannot. But a temporary waiver of participation in elections for the duration of a stay abroad seems a fair price to pay for maintaining the principle.

Playing games with our electoral laws will never save Israel from the inevitable decision on the fate of the West Bank. Former Israelis in Los Angeles or Moscow cannot balance out the large numbers of Palestinians threatening to demand equal civil rights if the two-state solution fails to materialize. The Netanyahu-Lieberman proposal should be set aside and forgotten.