Israelis abroad debate whether third vote in a year worth the trip home
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Israelis abroad debate whether third vote in a year worth the trip home

With no absentee ballot and seemingly endless voting, some are opting to save the hassle and airfare cost, or take a vacation instead. Coronavirus fears and AIPAC aren’t helping

View of an election campaign billboards showing Israeli prime minister and head of the Likud party Benjamin Netanyahu and Blue and White chairman Benny Gantz, in Tel Aviv on February 24, 2020. (Flash90)
View of an election campaign billboards showing Israeli prime minister and head of the Likud party Benjamin Netanyahu and Blue and White chairman Benny Gantz, in Tel Aviv on February 24, 2020. (Flash90)

JTA — Five years ago this week, Amos Geva took an EasyJet flight from Berlin to Israel’s Ben Gurion Airport for a very short visit home.

On his agenda: dinner with his family, a trip to the ballot box and media interviews about his efforts to encourage Israeli expatriates to vote, which cannot be done outside the country.

Those efforts, which galvanized thousands of expats on Facebook, yielded a discount on El Al plane tickets for anyone traveling home for Election Day — something Geva had always known he would do.

“I heard elections had been called and realized I wouldn’t be in Israel for it, and that would mean I couldn’t vote,” Geva told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. “I took that for a crazy idea.”

But last year, Geva shut down the Facebook page Israelis Abroad, Come Vote, and this week he’ll be vacationing in Taiwan instead of participating in Israel’s third elections in less than a year.

“Israel is and always will be important to me,” Geva said. “But I have to prioritize my life and schedule around things I can see happening. And I don’t see the political scene in Israel changing for the better.”

Sheets of newly printed ballots seen at Palphot printing house in Karnei Shomron, in preparation for Israel’s upcoming general elections, February 12, 2020. (Flash90)

With Israelis heading to the polls Tuesday for an unprecedented third time in less than a year, Geva is far from the only Israeli expat declining to get on a plane to cast a ballot. Two prior elections left the country in a virtual political stalemate, and polls indicate there’s unlikely to be a significant shift after the third round of balloting.

“You don’t know if it’s going to have a result or if there’s going to be another time,”  said Maayan Hilel, an Israeli scholar living near Chicago. “Israelis are really doubting the system.”

Hilel, who grew up in Beersheba, flew back to vote while he was living in Ireland, despite being frustrated by Israel’s restrictive voting rules. The regulations prohibit almost anyone who is not in the country on Election Day from casting a ballot.

Illustrative: Passengers wait at the departure terminal at Ben Gurion International airport on December 17, 2017. (Avi Dishi/Flash90)

“Even though it was time consuming, expensive and hard to take care of the kids, it was important to take the step to fly back,” she said. “I’m left wing and in Israel every vote is important.”

Israel’s lack of absentee voting stems in part from a worry involving the Right of Return — the law that offers Israeli citizenship to any and all Jews. Some Israelis are concerned that some Diaspora Jews would use the law to become Israeli citizens, then return to their countries of origin, where they would vote in Israeli elections from afar without having to live through the consequences.

Until now, the country has carved out exceptions only for the approximately 5,000 Israeli citizens who serve abroad as diplomats or official emissaries. They can vote in Israeli embassies or consulates, including the nine scattered throughout the United States. For this election, they voted on Feb. 18-19.

Israel also allows some of its voters there to cast their ballots outside of their regular polling places, including soldiers, hospital patients and prisoners.

Itzhak Gerberg, Israeli Ambassador to New Zealand casts his vote on February 19, 2020 in Wellington, New Zealand (Israel Foreign Ministry)

Anyone else who wants to cast a ballot must fly home to do so.

Greece and Ireland also only allow official government emissaries to vote, according to the Israel Democracy Institute, which is advocating for new regulations that would allow many Israelis abroad to vote. Estimates of the number of Israelis living abroad range from about 500,000 to nearly a million — either way, a substantial share of the Israeli electorate.

But many countries make some provision for people who are out of the country to vote. For example, American citizens who live abroad can vote in US federal elections, no matter how long it has been since they visited the United States. Many Americans with dual citizenship and live in Israel take advantage of the opportunity. Countries that follow the U.S. model include Norway, Spain and Belgium.

Other countries put a time limit on eligibility, such as the United Kingdom, where citizens who are abroad for less than 15 years can vote. Australia caps the time at six years.

Ofer Kenig and Yohanan Plesner of the Israel Democracy Institute have proposed a plan to address the issue in Israel.

Under their proposal, the right to vote absentee would be extended to Israelis who are living abroad temporarily but intend to return to live in Israel, to students studying abroad and to young people traveling abroad after their army service. Israeli tourists and businesspeople traveling on the day of the election could cast an early ballot at a polling station in Ben Gurion Airport.

The voting would not be for those where “Israel is no longer the center of their lives,” Kenig told JTA.

An Israeli man holds his dog while casting his ballot at a polling station in Rosh Haayin, on September 17, 2019. (Jack GUEZ / AFP)

The absentee ballot issue has cropped up from time to time on the Israeli political agenda, but the conversation has yet to yield any changes.

That leaves people like Marco Katz grappling with whether to buy plane tickets every time elections are scheduled. He’s an Israeli who heads the Center for Monitoring and Combatting Anti-Semitism in Romania, where he has lived since 1994,

Katz, 60, calls Israel his “center” and his “rock” — he frequently travels there, maintains a home and it’s where his entire family still lives –and believes all Israelis should use their votes to express their opinion about the country’s future.

But this time, feeling he has no party to back, “there is no reason to come to vote,” Katz said.

Still, Katz rejects the idea that Israelis should be able to vote absentee. He worries that large numbers of American Jews will become citizens for the purpose of voting out Israeli leaders they do not like “without sharing the burden” of living in Israel.

“If somebody wants to vote,” he said, “they should go to Israel and do it there.”

But that can be difficult for many reasons, even beyond the expense and hassle of traveling.

Next week’s election comes as an epidemic of coronavirus disrupts air travel and raises questions about the safety of flying back. The epidemic has already complicated diplomatic voting in Asia.

A tourist wears protective mask while waiting for a flight back to South Korea at the Ben Gurion airport near Tel Aviv, Israel, Monday, Feb. 24, 2020. (AP/Ariel Schalit)

The election also coincides with the annual conference of the American Israel Political Affairs Committee, a major gathering in Washington, D.C., on Israel issues that many Israelis typically attend.

Gal Ben Naim, 48, an Israeli bank executive who has lived in Los Angeles for 22 years with his American wife, has returned to vote in several elections. He comes from a politically involved family and recalls how his childhood home in Jerusalem was filled with political T-shirts, bumper stickers, signs and neighbors manning the phones for last-minute phone banking “like a war zone.”

“I feel that every vote counts. That is the beauty of democracy,” said Ben Naim, who believes that Israelis should have the right to vote absentee and all Jews should have a say in decisions made in Israel.

This election, however, he says of his vote, “I don’t know if it would even make any difference.”

Blue and White leader Benny Gantz addresses AIPAC’s policy conference in Washington DC, March 25, 2019. (Jim Watson/AFP)

So Ben Naim, who served in the Israeli army and has a degree from The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, will not be voting in Israel on March 2. Instead, he will be attending the AIPAC annual conference in Washington, DC, which was on the calendar long before the election was scheduled.

The combination of scheduling conflicts and election weariness could keep other Israelis from voting, too.

When the date of the election was announced in early December, American-Israeli Kathi Kreske Pearlmutter of Sde Boker, in southern Israel, already had a monthlong trip abroad planned. A high school English teacher on sabbatical for a year, Pearlmutter decided not to change plans in order to vote again.

“To be honest,” she said, “I am fed up with the situation and am not upset about missing it.”

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