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Israelis, Russia is trying to interfere in your election too

Russian cyber forces foment discord in our public discourse in order to divide and conquer, just as they have done in Ukraine and Moldova

Last week, I took a night flight home to Israel from Moscow, where I promote and sell Israeli agricultural technology.

Despite the quiet hum of the brand-new Aeroflot Boeing 777, I could not sleep, as I was preoccupied with trying to process what I had seen and heard on my most recent trip to Russia and my resulting deep worry for the state of Israel. I left Belorussia at the age of 12 when I made aliyah to Israel. For the past five years I have been a frequent business traveler to Russia and post-Soviet countries.

Not many Westerners realize this, but Russia is determined to fight the West on many fronts and in many proxy wars, and they are quite confident of their victory. This is something that was clear to me on my recent trip, and I feel the need to issue a warning to my fellow Israelis.

Russian special forces and air force personnel are already on the ground in Venezuela, the next country the Russian president has targeted in his war of expansion. One general I spoke with last week about an agricultural project in a remote province, something he had been planning as a personal project after his retirement, called me happily and said, “I have to postpone our project as I just received an order to pack and board a plane for Caracas.”

And so our project was postponed until more peaceful times, that is if he is fortunate enough to ever return in peace and not as a hero in a coffin.

Last Wednesday I was near the Moldovan Embassy in Moscow. As I looked around I noticed a great deal of activity on the part of Moldovan embassy officials. It turns out Moldova’s pro-Russian president Igor Dodon was to arrive in Moscow the following day for a secret visit in which he would consult his patron, the Russian president, about the deadlock in negotiations over a governing coalition in Moldova.

Suddenly I thought of my own country, Israel. It occurred to me that we too would soon have national elections whose results were expected to be close. Will Bibi fly to Russia to consult Putin about putting together his governing coalition?

Anything is possible, I thought with a sinking feeling. Moldova has already fallen into Russia’s sphere of influence, Ukraine is on the brink and Israel is perceived by Putin as a strategic target, since he is determined to rehabilitate Syria and maintain air force and naval bases there.

Before visiting Russia last week, I had also visited in Moldova, specifically Pridnestrovia, the secessionist region that has been under Russian control since 1993. It is a place that is frozen in time, stuck in the late 1990s, with no economy, no future no free elections and worst of all no hope.

I worry that Israel is also marching down this path towards isolationism, hostility and loneliness. How far will we go? We Israelis are more rancorous and divided than ever, recalling the period before the destruction of the Second Temple and our 2,000-year exile. And we know all-too-well that history repeats itself.

Russian special forces are already deployed in Syria, Venezuela, Moldova and the Ukraine. I’m afraid it’s now Israel’s turn to play Russian Roulette. Red or black.

Russia is drunk on the power it has acquired through intervening in elections across the West. They have identified a structural weakness of democratic regimes and that is their voting system. Using minimal budgets and the talent of its plethora of young scientists, computer engineers and mathematicians with technical and cyber expertise, Russian intelligence agencies are fighting and winning on the 21st century battlefield of cyberspace.

According to polls, Israel Beytenu, the party of the pro-Russian former Israeli defense minister Avigdor Liberman, may not win enough votes to enter the Knesset. But on the ground and in cyberspace, Russia is working with all its might to promote Liberman. I have no doubt they will achieve their goal.

And it’s not just Liberman. The Kremlin has also taken pains to help Netanyahu. The return of the remains of missing soldier Zachary Baumel to Israel on the eve of elections was a cynical gift from Putin to Netanyahu. The Kremlin has identified Netanyahu as corrupt and therefore as someone they can do business with. Under Netanyahu, Israel has come to resemble Russia more and more, with a Mediterranean flavor.

The ridiculous provocateur, Semion Grafman, who spent a year in U.S. prison, is another Knesset candidate catapulted from cyberspace into politics. His adoring Israeli fans do not stop to ask whether he has supporters working just above the blood-soaked cellars of FSB headquarters in Lubyanka Square.

Semion Grafman, a new candidate for elections to the Knesset, who came to participate in the elections and created his own party, served his sentence in US prison in the past, also jumped into the political race straight from Facebook.

It is known that the FSB uses thousands of assistants, trolls and bots on the Internet, which they manage from the bloody basements of buildings in Lubyanka Square, to promote candidates that are beneficial to them and thus interfere in the election process.

Moshe Feiglin’s messianic party has also received a great deal of support from Russian bots and trolls, I have learned from speaking to Russian political operatives in Israel and abroad. His Zehut party too catapulted from murky origins in cyberspace to high poll numbers.

The reason Russian intelligence supports figures like Grafman and Feiglin is because they undermine the foundations of Israeli public discourse, making the profane acceptable and making people feel as if everything is permissible. The professional term for this is “Overton windows,” when you take something that is beyond the pale and make it acceptable and legal. This is what the Nazis did between 1924 and 1933, in the years when it was still possible to perceive them as a legitimate political force.

The Russians seek to “divide and conquer” the Israeli political arena, just as they have done in the Ukraine and Moldova. Israel is a keystone of U.S. influence in the Middle East and for this reason our little country is of great interest to Russia. As a result, evil forces are poised to pounce into our lives and to destroy the delicate fabric of a (still relatively) free society and to turn us into a militant Jewish Iran under right-wing messianic leadership. Russia seeks to uproot us from Western civilization and transfer us to its own sphere of influence –by cultivating a frightening symbiosis of Putinism and Iran-style religious fanaticism.

The battlefield of Russia and the West currently runs through Jerusalem. Forces larger than ourselves are intervening in our elections.

On election day, we must choose carefully and responsibly. Will we embrace the Russian bear or the American eagle of freedom?

Unfortunately, I am afraid that the forces of darkness have already enveloped us, and may yet defeat the forces of light. Libermans, Grafmans and Feiglins will likely prevail and the day after the elections we will awake into the predicament of the many other countries that have turned their backs on democracy and fallen into the abyss of medievalism and authoritarianism.

About the Author
Ariel Marom is a former Knesset candidate and staffer for Tzipi Livni's Kadima party
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