Why Israel Should Not Let Its Citizens Vote Overseas

The proposals for overseas voting are part of a package to keep the prime minister in power by any means necessary.

Benjamin Netanyahu casts his ballot.
Benjamin Netanyahu casts his ballot.Credit: Mark Israel Salem.

In the 1980s, the Likud preferred elections in mid-summer, or so political reporters regularly wrote. The logic was that people vacation when the kids are out of school, foreign travel was expensive, and Labor voters were better off. So a summer date would cost the left votes. It was a way to warp the electorate by use of the calendar, since you can't gerrymander when the whole country is one district.

Today one of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's goals for his new government is to pass a law allowing Israelis who are overseas to vote. Though the technique has changed, the idea is the same: artificially altering the electorate to help the right. The assumption now is that Jews are a larger majority among Israeli citizens living abroad than among those at home. As a "senior Likud figure" explained to this newspaper, speaking anonymously to avoid accountability, the goal is to reduce the number of pesky Arab Knesset members.

The same undisguised animus toward Arab voting rights was behind last year's law raising the electoral threshold, a move that was expected to eliminate Arab parties. Likewise for Netanyahu's Election Day appeal to unenthusiastic right-wingers to vote lest Arabs bring the left to power. The first gambit backfired; the second was too blatant. Now he's trying a new legislative trick.

According to more off-the-record whisperings, his coalition partners are on board. They accept the guess that overseas Israelis lean to the right, and the ultra-Orthodox parties reportedly believe there's a particularly large reservoir of ultra-Orthodox expats.

And yet, you ask, isn't an absentee ballot a way to expand voting rights? Don't other democracies have it?

Since this is no place to catalog the laws of dozens of countries, let a brief comparison with the United States suffice. In America, the absentee ballot benefits people who need to be elsewhere inside their large country, or who are serving in the military, or who simply can't get to their polling station because Election Day is a work day. Americans abroad are a small fraction of the beneficiaries. In Israel, Election Day is a national holiday, special polling places are set up on military bases, and getting to your home precinct in a small country is no great challenge.

What's more, America taxes the income of its expatriates, so the principle of "no taxation without representation" applies. Israelis living overseas aren't subject to income tax here, or to the more onerous tax of military service. The small number who come here to vote show the depth of their connection by making that effort. The rest are spectators.

There's also a matter of proportions. Guesstimates of how many Americans live outside the United States run from under 1 percent of the population to slightly more than 2 percent. Before the last election here, the Central Bureau of Statistics estimated that 5.3 million eligible voters live in Israel, and that another 540,000 people are on the rolls but living overseas. If that's true, changing the law could allow people who don't live here to become nearly 10 percent of the electorate. The number may be much higher, since Israeli law grants citizenship to children born abroad to Israeli citizens.

One reason so many Israeli citizens have emigrated is that it's so easy to become a citizen in the first place if you're Jewish. The Law of Return grants every Jew the right to immigrate. Another law allows those immigrants to get citizenship immediately. The second rule doesn't flow logically from the first. Israel could require immigrants to live here a few years before getting the right to vote. But it never has. So since 1948, Israel has been a stopover for some people who came here, tried it and moved on – but remained on the voting rolls.

If a new law makes it easier to live abroad and vote in Israel, some people may take citizenship for that reason alone. Yeshiva students who come here anyway to study for a time and go home or wealthy foreigners who keep an apartment in Jerusalem may decide it's worth signing a few papers for the chance to express their views about Israel with a ballot.

Since Kulanu is the centrist party that keeps the coalition afloat, I'd like to ask Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon: Do your voters want people who don't have to live with Israeli prices to vote here? Does Yoav Galant, your party's ex-general, want the passionate Zionists of Paris and Brooklyn to help determine defense policy? Does Rachel Azaria, who entered politics as the voice of forward-looking Orthodoxy, want ultra-Orthodox expats and Israelis-of-convenience to determine who chooses rabbinic court judges? Are you okay with government by those who are not governed?

The overseas voting law is part of the same package as the bill aimed against human rights groups and as Netanyahu's plans to tame the media. Netanyahu isn't trying to protect voting rights. He's trying to stay in power, for life, by whatever means necessary.

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