Defeatists? Demagogues? Voters! How would giving the vote to expats change Israeli politics?

As Netanyahu moves to advance absentee balloting, experts note dearth of research on the political views of hundreds of thousands of Israelis who live abroad, and urge restrictions to limit their influence

Marissa Newman is The Times of Israel political correspondent.

Activist Asaf Lev attends a gathering in Tel Aviv encouraging other Israelis to immigrate to Berlin, October 14, 2014. (AP/Ariel Schalit)
Activist Asaf Lev attends a gathering in Tel Aviv encouraging other Israelis to immigrate to Berlin, October 14, 2014. (AP/Ariel Schalit)

Fifty years ago, in proud and patriotic Israel, it would have been unfathomable to suggest that Danny, an Israeli living in Berlin, and Danny, an Israeli living in Beersheba, be given the same opportunity to vote in Israel’s general election from their hometowns. But in the years since, absentee voting, while still deeply controversial, has been raised time and again.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday announced he was assigning Tourism Minister Yariv Levin to oversee the drafting of legislation to permit Israeli expats to vote in the general election from abroad. This wasn’t the first time Netanyahu had pushed the initiative — in 2009, his coalition agreement with the Yisrael Beytenu party stipulated that legislation on absentee voting be passed into law, but the idea never took off.

Meanwhile, the opposition to the proposal has been fierce, with critics arguing that it is not Zionist and that citizens abroad, who have no stake in Israel’s future, should not be permitted to vote (though during each election, hundreds of Israeli expats have traveled to Israel just to vote and are not prevented from doing so despite their overseas residency).

More pertinently, arguments have been made that the sizable expat community, which numbers above 500,000 according to some estimates, would disproportionately sway the vote of the 8 million-strong Israeli population and overwhelmingly favor right-wing parties (though during the recent public outcry over the so-called “Milky Protests,” emigrants to Berlin were vilified as left-wing Israelis who abandoned Israel for a better standard of living).

If the last election and its wildly inaccurate polls are any indication, the average Israeli voter is fairly inscrutable. But when it comes to the average Israeli expatriate, experts say there has been no definitive polling studying their political views, making them even more enigmatic than their unpredictable compatriots at home.

And while it remains unclear what the new proposed legislation will include, several Israeli experts have urged restrictions on the eligibility of voters abroad, while generally supporting the measure and downplaying the effects on the Israeli political map.

Israelis count the remaining ballots from soldiers and absentees at parliament in Jerusalem, a day after the general elections for the 20th Israeli Knesset. March 18, 2015. (Photo credit: Miriam Alster/FLASH90)
Israelis count the remaining ballots from soldiers and absentees at parliament in Jerusalem, a day after the general elections for the 20th Israeli Knesset, March 18, 2015. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Profile of an Israeli expat

Despite the dearth of research on their political views, several Israeli studies in the past decade have concluded that Israelis living abroad are generally more highly educated than the rest of the population, come from a higher socioeconomic background, and are predominantly secular and young.

According to Prof. Lilach Ben-Ari of Oranim college, who plans to pursue a study on the political leanings of Israeli expatriates, there has been no “serious study” of their views that she is aware of, but merely “conjecture” and “wild speculation.”

“We don’t know anything about Israeli voting patterns among our expatriates. We do know that in the US at least [where over 60 percent of Israeli expats live], their voting patterns are similar to American Jews… they tend to vote Democrat. From that, you might be able to infer ideologically who they will vote for here, but it won’t necessarily predict who they will actually vote for,” she said.

Prof. Gideon Rahat, of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s political science department, said that, while he was unaware of any polls on Israelis abroad, he would venture a guess that “intuitively, a lot of Jews and Israelis who live outside Israel, when they hear some of the criticism abroad, they may shift slightly to the right — because the criticism is often ridiculous or not precise or inaccurate.”

In this photo taken Tuesday, Oct. 14, 2014, Israelis attend a gathering encouraging others to immigrate to Berlin in Tel Aviv, Israel. A group of young Israeli expats have unleashed a storm of controversy back home by encouraging others to join them in Berlin, touching on two of the most sensitive issues in Israel: the country’s high cost of living and Jews’ tortured history with Germany. (photo credit: AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)
Israelis attend a gathering in Tel Aviv encouraging others to immigrate to Berlin, October 4, 2014. (AP/Ariel Schalit)

The number of Israeli expatriates also remains unclear, with most of the surveys relying on Central Bureau of Statistics figures that roughly put the number of Israeli expats between 500,000 and 700,000, whereas the World Bank figures are closer to 350,000.

According to a 2012 report by the Jewish People Policy Institute commissioned by the Israeli government, the CBS figures on emigration include all Israelis who have left the Jewish state for 12 months or longer, after staying in Israel for 90 days or more. It does not factor out the Israelis who have died abroad, or children born to Israeli parents. Moreover, many Israelis — who are treated by the CBS as emigrants after a year or several years abroad — return home. For example, the CBS recorded 511,000 Israeli emigrants from 1990 to 2013, of whom 220,000 have since moved back (the years that saw the highest departure rates at 27,000 or more were 1993 as well as 2001 and 2002, with the outbreak of the Second Intifada).

Further complicating the stereotypes of the average Israeli expat are the significant number of Soviet Jews who moved to Israel in the early 1990s before relocating elsewhere. According to the CBS, some 139,600 Jews from the former Soviet Union have left Israel for over a year between 1990 and 2013, among whom some 30,000 have returned (nearly one-fifth of the departures also took place in 2001-2002). The large numbers of Russian-speaking Israelis abroad prompted the Yisrael Beytenu party to push the issue of absentee voting for many of its presumably more hawkish constituents (though again, research is scarce).

According to Rahat, the issue of absentee voting was raised first by left-wing politicians and was later championed as a right-wing cause, and “was always accompanied by theories about who it would help in the election.” Ben-Ari assessed that the discussion was raised five to six times in the last decade alone. And in 2012, when cabinet secretary Zvi Hauser commissioned a policy paper from the Jewish People Policy Institute on the subject of absentee voting, the polarization of the issue was highlighted in the report.

“Parties from the left and right claim that this process is a manipulation of the other side with the goal of getting more votes,” the JPPI report said. “The left claims that Israelis abroad support the right, since there may be a sense abroad of persecution, and are under the assumption that emigrants hold more right-wing beliefs than the rest of the population. In contrast, the right wing relies on the [demographic] breakdown of the Israeli expatriates, who consist primarily of educated Israelis from a higher socioeconomic background, among which voting for the left-wing parties is more common.

“As of the writing of this report, we are unaware of any survey or substantial research that shows or predicts the character of the voters, especially, as stated, in the first years of emigration.”

Officials count the final ballots, from soldiers and absentees, a day after the general elections. March 18, 2015. (Photo credit: Miriam Alster/FLASH90
Officials count the final ballots, from soldiers and absentees, a day after the general elections, March 18, 2015. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

How should it be done?

While it remains unclear how the new legislation will play out, Israeli think tanks and experts have urged restrictions on absentee voting eligibility to prevent an outsized external political influence on Israeli politics.

In 2012, the JPPI paper evaluated four options — upholding the status quo, allowing all Israelis abroad over 18 to vote, allowing expats who pay taxes to vote, and granting the right solely to Israelis who have been abroad for four years or less. The paper recommended the last option, noting that it would filter out Israelis who have no intention of returning, while giving students and other Israelis abroad in the short term the option of fulfilling their democratic right.

“The potential number of voters is not high — at most 2-3 Knesset seats (but likely less), and it is anticipated that their voting patterns in this period will not be much different than it was in Israel,” it said, adding that the number of Israelis eligible would fall somewhere between 40,000 and 60,000. The paper also issued a number of recommendations, including that voters be required to show up in person at an Israeli consulate and be asked to declare their intention to move back to Israel.

Similarly, Dr. Ofer Kenig of the Israel Democracy Institute supports the absentee vote in principle, but only for Israelis “whose lives are centered in Israel.” He recommended that the government limit absentee voting to Israelis who have left Israel within the past 4-5 years and who have had a 90-day stay in Israel since. The would-be voters would also be asked to apply in advance, and must show up in person to vote at designated Israeli consulates or other institutions. With these conditions, he estimated that it would permit 50,000-70,000 Israelis, at most, to vote.

“Assuming they all come to vote, and we know from other countries that the turnout [for absentees] is lower than the general turnout… it will be two seats at most,” he predicted. Kenig also noted that in permitting it only for those Israelis who left Israel less than five years ago, and for “all intents and purposes are Israeli,” their votes will likely be unchanged from the positions they held while living in Israel.

“In my personal opinion, I think the time has come that we join the majority of countries in the world that allow its citizens abroad to vote. I think it’s somewhat unfair that the state allows murderers and rapists in prison to exercise their democratic right, whereas someone who went out to study for a doctorate abroad, or a family that was relocated as part of hi-tech company for a short time, cannot vote,” he said, adding that he is opposed to letting all Israelis living abroad vote in the general election.

Rahat concurred, saying he supports absentee voting, but only for Israelis living abroad temporarily. He also pointed to the technical constraints, namely that Israel has no voting-by-mail or online voting in place and is unlikely to implement these sort of changes in the near future. That Israeli expats will have to take time off of work and show up in person will likely whittle down the number of voters, he argued.

“Not so many people will make that kind of effort. In other words, if we limit the vote to people whose lives are centered in Israel firstly, and secondly, make the people show up physically [to vote] at the Israeli embassies or other polling stations opened [for this purpose] — we’re not talking about more than one or two [Knesset] seats,” he said.

Ben-Ari, meanwhile, who did not voice support for any restrictions other than perhaps a short survey to determine the voter’s familiarity with Israeli policies, also downplayed the effects of the vote by noting that among Israeli diplomats and consulate workers abroad — the only Israelis outside Israel currently allowed to vote — the turnout rate is under 50 percent.

“Even in the Knesset elections among consulate workers, even there the voting percentages are less than 50 percent. So all the more so, the average Israeli and certainly their children will not travel thousands of kilometers [to an Israeli consulate] to vote. So I would assess that roughly of the 350,000 Israelis living the Diaspora, a very small percentage will exercise this right to vote.”

According to the JPPI report, absentee turnout rates in the more than 100 countries that permit it generally hover below 30 percent (with some exceptions, such as the 2004 Greek elections, when some 74.9% of expatriates voted).

Changing attitudes toward expats?

Israel has a long history of resentment toward its yordim, a pejorative term for the expats who “descended” from the land in what is seen as a betrayal of the Zionist dream. But according to Ben-Ari, that cultural antagonism is slowly dissipating, as seen in the issue of absentee voting.

People stand in line to go through passport control at Ben-Gurion International Airport in Israel, September 21, 2008. (photo credit: Yossi Zamir/Flash90)
People stand in line to go through passport control at Ben-Gurion International Airport in Israel, September 21, 2008. (Yossi Zamir/Flash90)

“In the past 10-15 years, the approach to the Israeli emigrants abroad has changed. The condemnation has become more cautious — it’s not that it doesn’t exist, but it has lessened,” she said. “At the same time, people are looking for all these ways to keep in touch or renew contact with Israelis and their descendants living abroad.”

But while she supports absentee ballots, Ben-Ari is skeptical that the Israeli expats are as eager to vote as Israelis think they are.

“Not all Israelis keep up ties and feelings of involvement with what happens in Israel. It’s true that in the first generation of moving abroad, the connection to Israel is very strong. But… today there is the second generation, and even the beginning of the third generation, and the distance does its job. And a lot of the Israelis are not involved and not interested in what is going on in Israel,” she said. “Not everyone there is so eager, as we seem to think here in Israel, to influence and make the effort to go vote.”

The question of absentee voting is raised every year-and-a-half to two years, and still does not enjoy across-the-board support, she said.

“This issue comes up all the time. Because it’s so explosive in Israel, because there are still remnants of [an attitude that] ‘those who emigrate from Israel are traitors. [And] if they’re betraying it, they can’t be allowed to vote.’

“It comes up all the time, and my guess is that in the end, it will also happen.”

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