Netanyahu Rival's Party Says Hit by Russian Bots, Then Blames PM's Party

Yisrael Beiteinu hired an intelligence firm to investigate site purporting to be run by ex-Soviet immigrants and calling Avigdor Lieberman an 'existential danger'

Refaella Goichman
Hagai Amit
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Yisrael Beiteinu leader Avigdor Lieberman giving a speech, November 25, 2019.
Yisrael Beiteinu leader Avigdor Lieberman giving a speech, November 25, 2019.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg
Refaella Goichman
Hagai Amit

“We, the immigrants from the former Soviet Union, view with utmost importance informing the Israeli public about the existential danger posed by its leader Avigdor Lieberman. The lying, anti-Semitic information spread by Lieberman is all about destroying Israeli society and breaking up the Zionist enterprise that the Jewish people have worked for for years,” states a website named Sakana Mebeiteinu, a play on the party’s name that means “danger in our house.”

The entire site is focused on campaigning against Yisrael Beiteinu, the main party seeking the vote of the country’s Russian-speaking community.

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The messages from the site have been echoing through websites for the ultra-Orthodox and national religious communities for the past few weeks. The site translates Yisrael Beiteinu’s Russian-language election material into Hebrew and could have a significant chance of impacting the party’s election campaign.

The site and its messages were the background to an announcement that the party made last week, stating that it was being targeted by a Russian hacker campaign spreading fake news via bots on social networks.

During Israel’s first election campaign of 2019, the Central Election Committee expressed concern about foreign intervention in the country’s election process.

MK Oded Forer, head of Yisrael Beiteinu’s Knesset faction, filed a police complaint last week, and in a statement the party complained of “foreign intervention in the 23rd Knesset election. Actions against the party are being carried out by an army of bots along with the aid of a foreign company based in Russia, in a campaign that costs tens of thousands of shekels a month – money transferred anonymously in order to cover the source of the payment.”

Yisrael Beiteinu said the Russian company was based in St. Petersburg and owned by a man named Sergey Shavschenko, presenting the company’s address and Shavschenko’s phone number as proof. The party said it hired an Israeli cybersecurity company to gather information on the attack campaign, and that the cybersecurity company discovered the bots were being operated by a Russian IP address located at Shavschenko’s company’s offices.

Yisrael Beiteinu’s announcement made headlines on several Israeli news outlets.

TheMarker contacted a Russian investigator and asked her to verify Yisrael Beiteinu’s claims. The findings raise many questions. The company does need exist and works in website development, but isn’t actually in business at the moment, and hasn’t updated its website in a year. The address Yisrael Beiteinu cited belongs to a private individual, and the phone number is not in service, and has a Ukrainian area code.

This could indicate that the party is indeed being targeted via a secretive shell company, or that the investigation ordered by Yisrael Beiteinu wasn’t thorough enough.

When TheMarker asked Yisrael Beiteinu where the investigation stood, the party responded that it now suspects that Likud activists are behind the attack.

Yisrael Beiteinu is likely under pressure due to the latest election polls, which forecast that the party will receive seven Knesset seats, one less than it has in the current Knesset.

Lieberman has also been presenting different messages in different languages. In Russian, he’s been emphasizing his fight against religious coercion, the lower ultra-Orthodox workforce participation rate and the community’s draft exemption. However, he also has a religious-Zionist base, and his Hebrew-language statements are more moderate.

The citizens whose testimonies appear on the site aren’t hard to track down, and Yisrael Beiteinu claims it has confirmed that most of them are Likud supporters. One of the activists has also gotten backing from a Likud party attorney.

Likud stated in response, “Lieberman isn’t relevant anymore.”

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