Absentee ballots considered for Israelis living abroad
At the same time, it's almost impossible for Israelis abroad to cast election ballots. Unlike many nations including the U.S., Israel does not allow expatriates to cast absentee ballots. Only those abroad on official business such as diplomatic service are allowed to participate in elections for parliament and prime minister without returning home to vote. In the last election, this amounted to 5,600 voters.
Now, the office of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is advancing an initiative to allow Israeli citizens residing abroad to cast absentee ballots. The measure, variants of which have been shot down in the past, could affect hundreds of thousands of Israeli citizens out of the country for business or studies, or living elsewhere permanently. Some estimate about 550,000 Israeli citizens reside abroad -- most notably in Los Angeles and New York -- while others say the numbers could be as high as 1 million, making it one out of every eight eligible voters.
Proponents say voting is an inherent right of citizenship, regardless of one's place of residence. Besides, they say, Israel's current law is archaic in a global reality: If people can hop on a plane to vote, they should be allowed to simply vote abroad.
Those opposed say Israeli citizens who do not live with the results of elections should not be allowed to influence them. Besides, some say, being Israeli is more about the experience of life in Israel than about citizenship itself.
Lurking behind the philosophical arguments is a political issue: Many assume most expat votes would go to right-wing and conservative parties who support Netanyahu, the initiative's sponsor.
American citizens, for their part, can vote from abroad with absentee ballots, although they do have to register weeks in advance. In the last U.S. elections, 42,000 of the 250,000 American citizens (half of them eligible voters) in Israel registered to vote. According to exit polls, they heavily favored Republican John McCain.
For years, many Israelis held their expats in disregard, reflected in the negative judgmental word "yordim" -- "those who descend." They were mocked and dismissed as softies who opted out for an easier environment. But today's government leaders want them back and are encouraging them to return to Israel.
A recent campaign trying to coax Israelis to return from the U.S. "before Hanuka turned into Christmas" went overboard and offended some American Jews. But a study carried out by the Jewish People Policy Institute for Netanyahu's office said that granting absentee voting during the first four years of Israelis' residence abroad could have a positive effect on strengthening their identity and ties to the country.
Despite a persistent buzz about early elections, Israel, at least for now, is not due to have national elections until late 2013.
-- Batsheva Sobelman
Photo: A member of Israel's Kadima party casts his ballot Tuesday in the election for the party's leadership at a polling station in Jerusalem. Credit: Abir Sultan / EPA