About three years ago, when I was director general of the Israel Zionist Council, Uzi Arad and I appointed a strategic team to examine the relationship between Israelis living abroad and the state. One of the recommendations of the resulting policy paper was to extend the right to vote in Israeli elections to citizens who have lived overseas for up to 10 years.
According to a study that we commissioned, scores of Western countries, including the United States and many European nations, extend suffrage to their expatriate citizens, as do many Asian and African countries. American or Dutch citizens, for example, can live in Israel for years while continuing to participate in U.S. or Dutch elections, respectively.
The right to vote should be extended to all, irrespective of religion, race or sex, as provided by Israel's Declaration of Independence. Such a policy would show a desire by the state to bring all of its citizens closer to their homeland, to invest an effort in tightening their ties to Israeli society and the state, and to encourage their return in the future.
An increasing number of Israelis live abroad. The state can no longer ignore the need to reexamine its relationship with this important group. Future policy must focus on maintaining their links to the country, and the right to vote is part of this. We concluded that Israeli citizens who have been living abroad for up to 10 years and who have declared that they want to return to Israel in the future should be allowed to vote in elections.
The former cabinet minister and MK Shulamit Aloni was an important member of our team; she participated in all of the discussions that formed the basis of its recommendations. Her input regarding the ethical and public implications of the recommendations were critical.
Other members of the team included Maj. Gen. (ret. ) Shlomo Gazit; Brig. Gen. (ret. ) Ephraim Lapid; former Ambassador Yitzhak Meir; Brig. Gen. (ret ). Azriel Nevo; and Prof. Sergio Della Pergola.
It is with regret, however, that I must report that the practical recommendations drafted by the panel with the highest interests of the nation in mind are today the subject of partisan squabbling that detracts from the noble intentions of their authors.
I believe that Aloni's regrettable decision to join the call recently issued by Israeli intellectuals against giving voting rights to Israelis living abroad stemmed from the right wing's co-optation of the proposal for their own purposes.
The proposal could be amended to include only Israelis who have lived abroad for five years or less.
This is a call to Israelis who are a part of us. We seek to strengthen their connection, and their children's connection, to Israel; I estimate their number to be in the tens of thousands. Many of them served in the Israel Defense Forces and went abroad because the global economic crisis prevented them from finding work in Israel. We must keep in mind that ours is a small country with certain limitations, and that there will always be Israelis who will go abroad in search of professional opportunities.
The argument of the proposal's detractors - according to which Israelis who have chosen to live abroad cannot have a say on questions of war and peace - is correct when it comes to extending the vote to all Israelis, including ones abroad for decades. But it is reasonable to want to enable Israelis who left mainly to work, for up to five years, to vote from abroad.
Some of those Israelis are on the Interior Ministry's voting rosters. The idea is to allow them to exercise their democratic right, just as official emissaries of the state or the Jewish Agency are permitted to vote while they are abroad.
The author is the former director of the Israel Zionist Council.
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