On Monday, Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) Director Nadav Argaman made front-page headlines at a Tel Aviv University press conference by saying that a foreign country is trying to influence Israel’s upcoming elections through its cyber capabilities.
The military censor forbade publicizing the name of the country, which Argaman said out loud in his speech. Nevertheless, most assumed that the country in question was Russia, even though the Kremlin issued a denial on Wednesday.
Why Russia? What interest does Moscow have in interfering with these elections? And on behalf of whom?
Why, for instance, couldn’t the prime suspect be Iran, or even a European country – say France or Germany – which would love to see a Center-Left government in power to advance what they believe is the proper pathway to peace?
First of all, according to Eran Lerman, vice president of the Jerusalem Institute for Strategic Studies and former deputy head at the National Security Council, nobody should fall off their chair at the thought of a foreign country trying to influence another country’s elections. It happens all the time. For instance, in the 1996 elections between Shimon Peres and Benjamin Netanyahu, both Iran and the United States tried to impact the outcome.
As a wave of suicide bus bombings shook the country in the run-up to that election, Moshe Ya’alon, then the head of Military Intelligence, said: “Iran is trying to influence the election and is behind the wave of terrorist attacks.”
Those terrorist attacks, Lerman said, were “clearly designed to sway the elections away from the peace camp, which the Iranians saw as contrary to their interests.”
ON THE OTHER side of the equation, US President Bill Clinton was heavily involved – which he admitted to in an interview this year – in trying to get Peres elected, because this served America’s interests. He directed and choreographed a “Summit of Peacemakers” in Sharm e-Sheikh some two months before the election, and invited Peres to the White House for a photo-op a month before the balloting. It didn’t work, but the effort was definitely there.
“Intervention in other people’s politics is not exactly news,” Lerman said. What has changed, however, are the techniques, which now include “rigging the agenda through fake news, fake websites, or fake Facebook accounts.”
But what are Moscow’s interests in these elections?
“Interestingly enough, I think they have a good relationship with the prime minister, so I don’t see why they would be undermining his re-election process,” Lerman said.
Perhaps, therefore, the answer lies further down the ticket.
“Some people would speculate that they [Moscow] have certain running horses, but I feel uncomfortable getting into that,” he said. “Maybe there are people in the Israeli political system beholden to them in one way or another.”
Influencing the elections, he said, might not be about Netanyahu. “They may have interests below the level of who ends up as prime minister,” he said. Such as, for instance, who is in his coalition.
ACCORDING TO Zvi Magen, a fellow at the Institute for Strategic Studies in Tel Aviv and former ambassador to Russia, Moscow does have a history of looking for “influence agents” in foreign countries who rise to key positions and influence their government’s policies. He stressed, however, that he was speaking only hypothetically, and was not saying that Argaman’s finger-pointing was directed at Russia.
“Russia works throughout the world among its diasporas – in Germany, the US and other places – these diasporas are a comfortable place for their activity,” he said.
When asked what kind of activity he was referring to, Magen said promoting those who, in positions of power, would favor policies in line with Russian interests, or would advocate policies that either mean working with Russia, or at least not working against them.
Israel is important in Russia’s foreign policy, and Moscow has interests it wants to promote in Israel, the former ambassador explained. “We are in a region where they are active militarily. Israel influences the region, and could cause them damage if it feels threatened.”
But beyond having a localized objective of trying to influence the election to one side of the political spectrum or the other, Magen said that Russian meddling in elections around the world is part of a worldview of trying to destabilize Western democracies.
“In the US and Europe, they did it to undermine stability,” he said. “In this way, they develop points of leverage.”
When the system is unstable, Magen continued, it becomes easier for Moscow to promote certain policies. “When there is a lack of stability, other forces can [rise] to the forefront, and bring about a change of basic policies.”
According to Tehilla Shwartz Altshuler, head of the Democracy in the Information Age Project at the Israel Democracy Institute, it is unlikely that Russian interference in the Israeli elections would be an attempt to support one political side over the other.
“Frankly, I don’t think Netanyahu needs [Russian President Vladimir] Putin’s support in order to win the election,” she said. “ I think what the Russians are trying to do, and we have seen that both in America and in Europe, is to destabilize the political system, to reduce public trust in liberal democracy as a system.”
She said this is done “first of all by major attacks on political institutions, by putting political figures in fear that their private information will be revealed [and] in trying to widen political gaps.”
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