“A foreign country intends to interfere in the coming elections in Israel, and it will interfere. I don’t know at this stage whom it will help or hurt,” said Israel Security Agency (ISA) chief Nadav Argaman on Monday night, according to the Israel Television News company. “I know what I’m talking about,” Argaman added.
Argaman, who was speaking at a closed conference of the Friends of Tel Aviv University organization in Tel Aviv, said the interference would be done through cyber-attacks and hacking.
A spokeswoman for the organization refused to speak about Argaman’s remarks.
The comments were initially restricted by Israel’s military censor, but the restriction was later partly lifted.
On Tuesday evening, following the publication of Argaman’s comments, the ISA, also known as the Shin Bet, issued a statement that said: “The State of Israel and the intelligence apparatus has the tools and the ability to uncover, deflect, and to prevent the attempts of foreign influence. It is within the abilities of the Israeli security services to allow the existence of free and democratic elections in Israel.”
Although Argaman did not mention a specific country, it didn’t stop opposition politicians from promptly blaming Russia.
“We demand that the security forces ensure that Putin doesn’t steal the elections for his friend, the tyrant Bibi,” Tamar Zandberg, head of the left-wing Meretz party, said Tuesday, using Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s nickname.
Tehilla Shwartz Altshuler, a senior fellow at the Israel Democracy Institute, whose work focuses on democratic values and institutions, also saw Russia as the likely country the Shin Bet chief was talking about, but said she did not believe the Russians were particularly interested in supporting one political side in Israel over any other.
“I think what the Russians are trying to do — and we’ve seen it both in America and in Europe — is to destabilize the political system and reduce public trust in liberal democracy as a system,” Altshuler said in a conference call with reporters.
“Russia is probably trying to influence elections in Israel, just as it tried to do that in America, during the Brexit election period at the UK, the election period in France and perhaps last week in Germany,” Altshuler added.
Russia has denied having any intent to interfere in Israel’s elections, claiming it has never done so. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters on Wednesday. “It is out of the question. Russia has never interfered in elections in any country and has no plans to do it in the future.”
Asked about the reports of Argaman’s comments in Israeli newspapers, Peskov responded, “Don’t read these Israeli news outlets.”
Anat Berko, who chairs the Knesset’s cyber defense subcommittee, said Israel is prepared for any scenario of election interference, adding that the entire voting process in Israel is supervised.
“It is important to note that in Israel voting takes place with a ballot paper and not through the internet. The process is supervised. Israel is a cyber power and is well protected in the cyber field. This protection extends to the above matter as well as to infrastructure,” Berko told CNN.
CNN’s Michael Schwartz and Nathan Hodge contributed to this report.