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Well-timed absentee voting bill - a blow to Israeli democracy

By Issa Edward Boursheh

In late March, before elections were announced, Cabinet Secretary Zvi Hauser revived an earlier effort to grant Israeli citizens abroad the right to vote. The argument in support of such a bill is that it could increase the level of overall voter participation. But there is every reason to believe that this is not the true concern of the current government and its leaders.

The new proposal under consideration, Haaretz reported, was commissioned by Hauser from the Jewish People Policy Institute (JPPI), and will enable Israelis to vote in the next Knesset election within four years after leaving Israel if they declare their intention to return, and provided they register at an official Israeli consulate or embassy abroad. The proposal also stipulates that the citizen must have resided in Israel for a minimum amount of time.

According to the report (Hebrew) by the JPPI, between 677,000 and 706,000 Israelis reside abroad; 543,000 to 572,000 will be eligible to vote, according to this paper. After all the limitations proposed, the number is reduced to a sum that could add up to about 2-3 Knesset seats (p. 11).

Proponents argue that other Western democracies allow absentee voting, including Canada, Australia and the US. But those democracies are based on universal principles of citizenship. Unlike those countries, in Israel naturalization is based almost exclusively on Jewish identity. Even with some safeguards about residency and the four-year limitation, it is Jews who are more likely to gain citizenship from Israel, and travel or live abroad.

As it stands, the bill could, de facto, lead to gerrymandering the Israeli electorate in favor of the Jewish people, upsetting even the current Jewish-weighted balance. That may eventually cause more harm than benefit to this democracy. Here is a list of the main dangers:

1. According to the Law of Return, Israel is the national home of all Jews around the world. All Jews are entitled, according to the law, to pursue citizenship practically just by stepping on Israel’s soil and by proving Jewish descent, which will turn them into voters too. The criteria needed to prove Jewish descent to acquire citizenship according to the Law of Return are actually more lenient than those demanded by the Orthodox Israeli Rabbinate (some Jews receive Israeli citizenship but are not recognized as Jews by the Rabbinate). The bill opens the door to the possibility of Jews around the world pursuing citizenship just for the purpose of voting, with only minor obstacles; and those most likely to take advantage of it are, I believe, potentially right-wing voters. I find it difficult to believe that the new Israeli living in New York will consider voting for Hadash, Ra’am-Ta’al, Balad or the new Arab party.

2. The bill exacerbates some of the most glaring, non-democratic inequalities among the residents of the land. At present, there are more than 300,000 voters who reside outside the Green Line/Israel who practice their voting right – in other words, settlers. Amongst them are government ministers and members of Knesset, including Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman and Coalition Chairman Zeev Elkin, to name two. On the other hand, more than 250,000 Palestinians who reside in East Jerusalem are residents of territory that was annexed by Israel’s Basic Law: Jerusalem yet they are not citizens of Israel and are not allowed to vote in national elections. In addition, more than 20,000 Druze live in the Golan heights with similar status to the East Jerusalemites, and they do not participate in Knesset elections either. For the record, this is partly due to the choice of these residents due to the complexity of their reality and fear of where they might end up as a result of future agreements. (For a sample of what East Jerusalem Palestinians go through in terms of residence and nationality, read Amira Hass’s report on Elias Khayyo.)

3. The Israeli government doesn’t seem truly concerned about raising voter turnout. The voting percentage in Israel’s four recent elections were 62.3 (2001), 68.9 (2003) and 63.5 (2006) and 65% (2009) – around the average considering the voter turnout decline in most Western democracies. To address a rather standard decline, there are plenty of other ideas that could be tried first. For example, one may consider making the elections compulsory, or canceling Election Day from being a holiday unless one votes.

There are serious problems that arise from this debate and it’s crucial to address them. First, are the Israelis who reside abroad Netanyahu’s core supporters (Netanyahu’s many Facebook fans are not from Israel)? Is that the reason he is seeking to include them? Second, the fact that more than 300,000 Israelis residing outside the Green Line/Israel in the West Bank/Palestinian Territory (not including East Jerusalem) have the right to vote (Election Laws, Hebrew), and self-determine their destiny from far beyond the traditional two-state borders is further evidence that the government is implementing a de facto one-state policy. If so, the first step should logically be to expand voting rights to all residents of the land, i.e., Palestinians in the West Bank, way before granting it to those who are residing overseas.

In short, if this is really about strengthening democratic participation – and I am not convinced – there are many other options and tools that Netanyahu’s government should be using. Adding additional voters to the election registry from abroad, while continuing to deny this basic right to those at home, is just another form of unacceptable gerrymandering. It’s not yet clear how far this bill can advance prior to the September 4 elections – but still, the whole approach is too fishy for me.

Issa Boursheh is a graduate student at Tel-Aviv University and blogs at http://www.twenty2nine.com

Read also:
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    1. Al

      Ok, an interesting piece, but a couple of things worth thinking about:

      (1) The Arab Palestinian population of East Jerusalem (broadly speaking) do not vote in municipal elections. They choose not to, on ideological grounds. They *ought* to be granted the right to vote in national elections, but what’s the point if they won’t take it up?

      (2) Bibi’s many facebook friends are Malaysian, it seems. Feel free to draw your own conclusions about this, but it’s unlikely that they’ll find a way of giving them the Israeli vote. One hopes.

      All that said, I agree with the main thrust of your argument. The country’s citizenship laws make it impossible to grant non resident Israelis the vote. It *ought* to make it impossible, I should say.

      Reply to Comment
    2. caden

      I believe that Issa is an arab name. And has a graduate student at TEL AVIV university he appears to be doing Ok under the oppressive jackboot of the “zionist entity” But I digress. There has to be a way of differentiating between a guy out of the army backpacking in India or a guy working in a foreign country for Teva on assignment. And somebody who has been in LA since 1985

      Reply to Comment
    3. Mitchell Cohen

      FWIW, my impression regarding Israeli ex-pats is that they are at least as likely to vote Labor (or even Meretz) as they are Likud. It also seems that the overwhelming majority of yordim are secular, rather than religious and will most likely not vote Shas, Mafdal/Bayit Ha’Yehudi, Ichud Ha’Leumi, etc.

      If there is a minimum amount of time that one needs to live in Israel before they can vote abroad, this would certainly limit the phenomenon of individuals “making aliyah” just to vote in Israeli elections and then take off back overseas.

      I used to be against Israeli ex-pats voting absentee, but then I realized if one has put their life on the line serving Israel (many ex-pats even return to fight when Israel goes to major wars), so it didn’t seem right denying them the right to vote.

      I am against “forced voting”, as this is no less a threat to democracy. In a democracy one should have the right NOT to vote.

      Reply to Comment
    4. It seems to me that the statement “some Jews receive Israeli citizenship but are not recognized as Jews by the Rabbinate” understates the facts. As I mentioned elsewhere, as of 2008, there were 1.3 million Russian speakers in Israel, out of a total population of 6.5 million. As many as 500,000 of these were not only not halachically Jewish, they were not Jewish at all. The Law of Return as modified in 1970 says: “The rights of a Jew under this Law and the rights of an oleh under the Nationality Law are also vested in a child and a grandchild of a Jew, the spouse of a Jew, the spouse of a child of a Jew and the spouse of a grandchild of a Jew.” The Soviet social system was emphatically anti-religious. Intermarriage normally occurred in a completely secular context. A very large proportion of these 500,000 were not only non-Jews halachically speaking, they were culturally non-Jewish in every respect. Many were, and remain, practicing Russian Orthodox Christians. Their motives for availing themselves of the Law of Return were economic. Having said all that, their electoral significance is considerable. They could be used to knock the religious parties out of future coalitions.

      Reply to Comment
    5. Rodrigo

      How can a law to allow the voting of expats be a blow to Israeli democracy when most democracies in the world have the same law? 1) is irrelevant since expats skew right for other democracies as well 2) Voting rights is generally given to citizens, not residents, wherever they may be. This proposal actually fixes an unreasonable situation 3) is not relevant to this issue

      All your arguments are weak. You just don’t like that this is likely to cut down the parties you support by a couple of seats in the knesset.

      Reply to Comment
    6. sh

      “How can a law to allow the voting of expats be a blow to Israeli democracy when most democracies in the world have the same law?”
      Very easily, Rodrigo. Most democracies in the world are not occupying an area that does not belong to them into which it implants its own nationals while denying the majority of its indigenous residents citizenship. Most democracies in the world do not run a military dictatorship that applies not to the area but to the race/religion (pick what suits you best) of the individuals who live in it.

      Reply to Comment
    7. I see no reason to decry giving expatriat citizens the vote. Being American, I would give every citizens the vote irrespective of time abroad. This is an issue internal to Israel, not the occupation. While calculus might at present favor the right over center (what left?), that could change later. That Bibi et al might want the change for their own success is far from surprising; but the principle will outlive them, once instituted.

      Reply to Comment
    8. sh

      “This is an issue internal to Israel, not the occupation.”
      The occupation is an issue internal to Israel. In fact it’s THE issue internal to Israel.

      Reply to Comment
    9. max

      @SH, would you be so kind and clarify the relevance of your arguments to the issue?

      Reply to Comment
    10. SH,
      I’m not going to politially correct on this one. In my view, to make progress in the Israeli polity one needs to decouple some issues from the occupation. I am well aware that those living it will find this crass. The occupation is not going away. It will be here after the coming early elections. I am looking for long term changes, ways of forming issues which might blossom years from now. I know it doesn’t help anyone right now. But that is part of the point.
      The standing of citizens in elections can be framed independently. That independence might allow new coalitions later.
      I am not interested in party slogans. And, yes, I am aware of the deaths, and the constant belittling, of those enduring a life of occupation.
      Continue to police; I will continue to think.

      Reply to Comment
    11. Mitchell Cohen

      I REALLY don’t understand why allowing ex-pats to vote at this point would be a “calculating” move on the current government’s part when

      1) Bibi is enjoying popularity, according to surveys, which show him trouncing Yacomovich and Lieberman, the leaders of the two parties predicted to receive the next largest number of votes after Likud and

      2) there is NO evidence that allowing ex-pats to vote would slew the election outcome to the right. On the contrary, it seems most (but not all) Israeli ex-pats leave Israel because they are disconcerted with the country. I would think that ex-pats voting would be more likely to slew the outcome to the left. At the very least, the ex-pats voting patterns would probably mimick that of the general Israeli population, other than there being less religious and Arab-Israelis in the mix.

      Reply to Comment
    12. Cortez

      I was going to so that unfortunately the rabbinate conception and the law of return’s conception of who is Jewish are one of several interpretations. In this day there shoulnt be a religious litmus test when all descendent of Jews should be accepted as equals.

      Reply to Comment
    13. alethe

      In Australia although citizens can vote if they are abroad, they can not vote if they are resident abroad for more than 12 months. I agree with this as if you’ve chosen to make your home elsewhere you shouldn’t have the same say in the way the country is government.

      I think absentee voting is fair and appropriate if it only applies to citizens who are residents.

      Reply to Comment
    14. Mitchell Cohen


      I used to think the same way. However, after much soul searching I realized that, unlike most other countries (including Australia, correct me if I am wrong), most Israelis serve in the military, many have put their lives on the line for Israel, and some have even returned from overseas to fight in wars. For example, I know someone who’s uncle moved to Canada to be close to his grandchildren. However, his uncle also served in Lebanon and took shrapnel to his gut. Somebody like him shouldn’t have the right to vote in Israeli elections? In my book, he has CLEARLY earned his right.

      Reply to Comment
    15. Al Sheber

      Many Israelis who reside overseas, had or obtained another citizenship, some did not renew their Israeli passport because they cannot travel or have no reason to go to Israel, who can figure which one is real and whose vote is legit? Additionally, those who do not have present roots in Israel, (few relatives, no property, no friends) may not have the same considerations in voting as those who live and contribute to the well being of the state, therefore I am not sure that granting Israelis who gave up on Israel the right to influence the future of Israel is a solid concept. Perhaps, some of the great minds of academia could create a case showing how positive this vote will be and how to insure that it is not a wholesale job of vote buying which is so popular in various countries.

      Reply to Comment
    16. Deborah

      “…most Israelis serve in the military, many have put their lives on the line for Israel, and some have even returned from overseas to fight in wars. For example, I know someone who’s uncle moved to Canada to be close to his grandchildren. However, his uncle also served in Lebanon and took shrapnel to his gut.” Whether this guy should be able to vote can be argued over, but unintentionally this statement suggests a LOT about what is problematic about Israel. Israel has bombed so many Arab countries over the past fifty years that this kind of overly militarized notion of the “good” citizen, the one that lives abroad but should be able to vote, is more telling of potential threats to democracy than the absentee ballot voting.

      Reply to Comment
    17. Rodrigo

      Sh, that Israel is occupying whatever you think it is occupying has no impact on the presumed rights of expatriate Israelis to vote in an election. The two things are unrelated. It is like arguing that an American war veteran of Afghanistan should have no right to vote when he goes to study abroad in Paris for a semester.

      Again, the only real opposition that any of you can summon to allowing expat Israelis to vote abroad is that you don’t think they will vote for the parties you like. There is no reason to pretend that expats are not going to skew right, but there is also no argument that can possibly be legitimately offered for why that should make a difference.

      Reply to Comment
    18. sh

      “Sh, that Israel is occupying whatever you think it is occupying has no impact on the presumed rights of expatriate Israelis to vote in an election.”
      Reverse that and you’ll be onto something. There aren’t too many countries allowing foreign residents to vote that don’t have recognized borders. There are also not that many countries the leaders of which announce a general election date to their population and within 24 hours rescind it, come to think of it. By the time the election does come around the subject of this piece is unlikely to still be relevant.

      Reply to Comment
    19. Kolumn9

      Sh, I have no idea how I would reverse my position. There is simply no logical basis for denying Israeli citizens in New York the vote because Israel controls parts of the West Bank. The whole discussion of the occupation and the lack of recognized borders is a red herring.

      The subject of this piece is going to be relevant going forwards because the proposal to grant expats the right to vote is going to continue to be proposed until it passes. I wouldn’t even be surprised if the current government passes it.

      Reply to Comment
    20. Kolumn9

      Ugh. I’ve gotta pay more attention when using different nicknames.

      Reply to Comment
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