Netanyahu's Office Pushing Initiative to Allow Israelis Abroad to Vote in Knesset Elections

Law would grant the right of absentee voting in Knesset elections to Israelis living abroad, but only for the first four years after leaving Israel.

The Prime Minister's Office is trying to breathe new life into a failed initiative that would allow Israelis abroad to vote in the Knesset elections.

Cabinet Secretary Zvi Hauser is promoting a new softened proposal that would grant the right of absentee voting in Knesset elections to Israelis living abroad, but only for the first four years after leaving Israel. Another proviso is that they register at an Israeli consulate or other authorized institution abroad, and declare their intention to return to Israel.

Livnat and Netanyahu Flash 90
Flash 90

Granting absentee voting rights to all expatriate Israelis was part of the 2009 coalition agreement between Likud and Yisrael Beiteinu. But despite receiving the backing of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, it was eventually shelved due to the opposition of most Knesset parties and the public outcry that ensued.

Hauser recently commissioned and received a policy paper on the issue from the Jewish People Policy Institute. The paper's author, Yogev Karasenty, estimates that the expatriate vote would account for no more than two Knesset members.

More than 500,000 Israelis live abroad, most of them in Russia and the United States. The current law allows only diplomatic officials or Jewish Agency representatives to vote, as well as Israeli sailors at sea.

Karasenty says the current law "causes an official distortion which prevents absentee votes from tens of thousands of Israelis who are temporarily abroad (some of them in security posts ), despite the fact that they consider Israel the center of their lives."

Karasenty, who wrote the paper for Hauser together with Inbal Hakman, claims the current law is "archaic" and incongruous with a global era, when many Israelis study and work abroad for long periods.

According to the paper, some 115 countries allow absentee voting, including the U.S., Norway, Canada, Australia and Poland. This right is restricted to a certain time period or subject to a declaration that the citizen plans to return to his country.

Based on data from the Israel Central Bureau of Statistics, the paper estimates that more than 500,000 Israelis live abroad. Based on Israel's emigration balance, the paper concludes that some 42,000 Israelis over the age of 18 would be eligible to vote if the proposal was accepted. In the last elections, under Israel's electoral system some 27,000 votes were needed for one Knesset seat.

When the issue was last raised, in 2010, one of the arguments was that the proposal was intended to strengthen the right-wing bloc of the Knesset. Talking to Haaretz, Karasenty rejected this argument: "Since we're talking about Israelis who haven't been away from Israel for more than four years, we can guess that their voting habits haven't changed since they left. Therefore, it would be hard to say if such a population would vote for the right more than for the left."

The paper reviews four alternatives: Leaving the situation as it is; granting a limited four-year right to vote; granting absentee voting rights to all Israelis abroad; or granting the right to vote only for those who pay taxes in Israel.

The paper weighs the pros and cons of each proposal and recommends the second option, claiming the number of voters would be known, there would be no need to add further mechanisms on top of those already available to consulates abroad, and the cost wouldn't be too high.

The authors of the paper predict the Israeli public wouldn't oppose such a proposal since about half of the voters would return to Israel in any case.

The proposal adds that only citizens who previously lived in Israel for a minimum period would enjoy the right to vote, it would be exercised only once, and the absentee voter would have to register in advance at an Israeli consulate and declare that he or she intended to return to Israel.