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

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