Israel Drafting Plan Allowing Citizens to Return Home to Vote Despite Closed Skies

Israelis seeking to return from abroad while COVID restrictions are in place need approval from a committee to be allowed back in, and voting isn't on the list of criteria

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Ben-Gurion International Airport, the day before its closure, in January.
Ben-Gurion International Airport, the day before its closure, in January.Credit: David Bachar

The government is formulating a plan to allow Israeli citizens enter the country from abroad to vote in the upcoming Knesset election, even though the skies are closed to returning travelers in an effort to contain the spread of COVID-19 variants.

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A statement from Transportation Minister Miri Regev’s office said that contrary to reports, the National Security Council and other relevant agencies are examining a number of plans that would let citizens to enter the country to cast their ballots without the approval of the exceptions committee, which allows Israelis to return home on a case-by-case basis. Until the government makes a decision on the matter, the exceptions committee will continue to operate as usual.

Israel shuttered Ben-Gurion International Airport in January, about a month after the third coronavirus lockdown began and as infection rates surged.

The exceptions committee, established at the same time, allows Israelis to reenter the country according to limited criteria, including urgent medical care, the death of an immediate family member and essential work. Voting is not included on the exception committee's list.

This complicates the matter of the March 23 election, Israel's fourth in about two years. In previous elections, Israeli citizens could return from abroad as late as on Election Day itself to vote. The country does not allow for absentee voting, with the exception of diplomats. If the restrictions on air travel are extended beyond March 6, thousands of Israelis who wish to cast their ballots will not be able to do so.

Regev’s statement comes in the wake of massive public criticism over the actions of the government and the Transportation Ministry. As of now, the exceptions committee has rejected requests by Israelis who want to enter the country to vote, further inflaming the criticism.

The High Court of Justice will hold a hearing Thursday on petitions challenging limitations placed on Israelis returning to the country due to the pandemic. The petitions were filed by Israelis who traveled abroad prior to the decision to impose the restrictions and who were turned down over the past two weeks by the exceptions committee when they sought permission to return.

In response, the state has said that the restrictions were necessary due to the Health Ministry's assessment that the Pfizer vaccine – which Israel has been using for its mass vaccination campaign – is only 60 percent effective against the South African variant of the coronavirus.

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