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Analysis: Shin Bet chief revelations to deter 'foreign state' interference

Le chef du Shin Bet, Nadav Argaman
Shin Bet

Which is the "foreign country" that the head of the Shin Bet, Nadav Argaman, said was intending to intervene in the Israeli elections on Monday?

Argaman made the remarks at a conference attended by civilians, apparently assuming that they will be published - in order to deter the very same country.

His intentions were also perhaps to tell Israeli citizens to beware of fake news, and to recruit them, in the effort to identify those attempts, based on the knowledge gained from what happened in the US, France and Britain.

Argaman warned of a cyber attack, or a "campaign of influence" on social networks, aimed at weakening the public's trust in the government.

Following the publication of his remarks, the Shin Bet said in a special statement that it "wishes to clarify that the intelligence community has the tools and capabilities to locate, monitor and thwart attempts at foreign influence, if any."

"The Israeli defense establishment will make democratic and free elections in the State of Israel possible," the statement said.

"At this stage, I do not know how to identify the political interests involved in that country's interference - but it will interfere. I know what I'm talking about," said Argaman.

The head of the security service added that it will definitely "using cyber techniques - hackers, etc."

MAXIM SHIPENKOV / POOL / AFP

Learning from the American experience

One of the countries that Argaman may be thinking about is Russia, which has been accused of attempting to interfere in the political process in many other countries - especially the United States.

Moscow is accused of intervening in the 2016 presidential election in an attempt to promote Trump and hurt his Democratic rival.

In the past, US intelligence agencies claimed that the Russians had hacked into the Democratic Party's computers, and used social networks to disseminate false information.

But in a report published in 2017, intelligence agencies made it clear that they had not tried to assess the impact of the Russian intervention on the election results.

Although President Trump repeatedly casts doubt on Russia's influence in the elections he won, in August last year, senior aides accused Moscow of further interference, this time in the 2018 mid-term elections.

Brendan Smialowski (AFP)

US National Intelligence Director Dan Coates said at the time that Washington would be ready to defend its elections in the next presidential campaign in 2020.

The Russian intervention led to an investigation and charges against many of the President's associates.

Michael Flynn, who served briefly as a national security adviser, admitted that he had lied to the FBI about his ties with the Russians and had signed a plea bargain with special prosecutor Robert Mueller.

Trump's former campaign chief, Paul Manafort, signed a plea bargain - which was eventually overturned on the grounds that he lied to investigators about Russian involvement.

Mueller's investigation also led to the downfall of Trump's confidant, his former lawyer Michael Cohen. He was sentenced to three years in jail after admitting he lied to Congress over the proposal to set up Trump Tower in Russia and to pay silence money to women who claimed to have had an affair with Trump.

Russian intervention - not only in the US

The United States is not the only country in which Russia is alleged to have tried to intervene. It has been argued that Europe is also a key target for Moscow.

A day and a half before the 2017 French presidential election, hackers broke into Emmanuel Macron's campaign computers - and sent hundreds of documents to his network of supporters.

The group behind the attack could be APT28, which has ties to the Russian Army Intelligence Agency (GRU). The organization was also accused of launching cyber attacks during the US elections, but a month later the French cyber protection agency said they had found no evidence that the organization was behind the Macron interference.

Odd ANDERSEN (AFP/File)

Russia was also apparently involved in manipulating the elections that year in Germany. Chancellor Angela Merkel still won the highest number of votes - but lost influence, while the extreme right-wing Alternative to Germany (AfD) entered parliament for the first time.

Time reports that the success of the party was based not only on growing frustration with Merkel's immigration policy, but also on the favorable coverage it received in Russian state media channels. There is a large Russian immigrant population settled in Germany, about 5% of the total population.

Russia, as noted, is not the only country that Shin Bet chief Argaman may have been talking about: China and Iran were also accused last year by US officials of interfering in the midterm elections.

Beijing has been trying to widen its interests in Israel, and it could be assumed, for example, that the Chinese may have an interest in influencing the choices of senior officials in fields related to infrastructure.

In anticipation of National Security Advisor John Bolton's visit to Israel, it was reported that the Americans were concerned about the infiltration of Chinese technologies into Israel, and China's direct investment in Israel, especially at the Haifa port.

All hands on deck at Israel's State Comptroller

Meanwhile, the State Comptroller announced Tuesday that his ministry is already preparing to conduct an audit that will deal with various aspects of cyberspace in connection with the upcoming election campaign.

He said that the 21st Knesset elections, including the primaries, presents a new, important and essential challenge, since today a large part of political campaigning is carried out on social networks and on the Internet.

"A fundamental cornerstone of public confidence in Israeli democracy is that the results of the elections reflect the will of the voters," he said.

"Foreign interference, which will undermine the credibility of the systems and the credibility of the results, is liable to lead to a deep and fatal blow to the public's trust in the government," the State Comptroller added.

"I have instructed everyone in my office to examine the preparedness of the authorities to defend themselves in case of a cyber attack on the computerized systems required for the proper conduct of the election process."

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