Stopping election interference

On Monday, Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) director Nadav Argaman made headlines by telling an audience at Tel Aviv University that a foreign country is trying to interfere in Israel’s upcoming national elections.

The Military Censor banned publication of the name of the country to which Argaman was referring, but the Shin Bet chief did say it was planning to use “cyber capabilities” to achieve its objectives. “A foreign country intends to interfere in the coming elections in Israel, and it will interfere,” Argaman was reported to have said. “I don’t know at this stage whom it will help or hurt [but] I know what I am talking about.”

First, we take issue with the Military Censor’s decision. If the head of the Shin Bet gives a speech in front of civilians and says something that might have been classified, it is no longer going to be able to remain classified. That is enough to allow publication.

In addition, there is an interest in letting the Israeli public know which country might be trying to undermine the electoral process. It is true that Israel has interests in maintaining good relations with Russia – especially considering its ongoing presence in Syria – but that does not mean it can get away with whatever it wants. If Russia is truly working to harm Israel’s democracy, the people should know.

It is important to know so that people can be vigilant and know what signs of intervention to look for. In Thursday’s Jerusalem Post, Herb Keinon brought two examples of foreign intervention in past elections: Iran increasing suicide attacks ahead of the 1996 elections, and efforts during that same race by president Bill Clinton to get Shimon Peres reelected.

If, for example, the foreign country Argaman was referring to will interfere by posting fake news on Facebook, or by putting up advertisements on highway billboards, Israelis should know.

It could simply be, as the Israel Democracy Institute’s Tehilla Shwartz Altshuler told Keinon, that Russia is trying to “destabilize the political system, to reduce public trust in liberal democracy as a system.”

Russia naturally denied accusations that it has plans to intervene in the elections, and the Kremlin spokesperson, Dimitri Paskov, rejected Argaman’s claims.

Nevertheless, a simple look at what has been going on in the United States since the 2016 presidential election is enough of a reason why we should be concerned. Ever since Donald Trump was elected president, there have been accusations and reports of Russian intervention in that election, as well as allegations his campaign colluded with Moscow to ensure he won.

This has led not only to the Mueller probes, but also to an amazing sense of divisiveness to regular Americans, among whom some hate the president and others can find nothing wrong with him. This might have been the case with Trump even without the Russian scandal, but it has definitely exacerbated an already volatile situation.

This cannot be allowed to happen in Israel. When elections are undermined, people lose faith not only in their government but also in their country. A people that feels an election has been stolen, will have difficulty falling behind and supporting controversial government policies. If there is a feeling that the elections were undermined, the next government will have difficulty enacting policies like a peace deal with the Palestinians or legislating a new draft bill to get haredi youth to serve in the IDF.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu assured Israelis on Wednesday that Israel is better prepared than most countries to fend off a cyberattack against its electoral process. We hope he is right. But to be sure, we would urge the government to allocate resources to increase our cyberdefenses and to educate the public in how to identify cases of election interference.

Interfering with elections is a direct blow to the democratic character of any country, but especially one like Israel, which prides itself on being the only true democracy in the Middle East.

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