Analysis

When Russia Becomes the U.S.S.R. on Steroids, Israel Can Become a Target Too

It seems Russia’s interest in Israel has only increased – in part due to the danger it will help ruin Moscow’s plan for Syria. And Netanyahu's government shouldn’t forget the Chinese threat, either

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attend an event marking the International Holocaust Victims Remembrance Day, Moscow, Russia, January 29, 2018.
\ MAXIM SHEMETOV/ REUTERS

Almost in passing at the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee last July, Israel Defense Forces chief Gadi Eisenkot mentioned the possibility of foreign intervention in Israel’s democratic processes.

Eisenkot didn’t name the country that’s likely to intervene, but the examples he listed – cyberattacks and incitement campaigns in the United States, France and Ukraine, most of them during election campaigns – pointed to one address: Russia. Shortly afterward, Haaretz reported that the National Cyber Security Authority was drawing up a program to prevent foreign intervention in elections.

Meanwhile, we’re hearing that the next Knesset election might take place this year, well before the deadline of November 2019. At the same time, it seems Russia’s interest in Israel has only increased – due to Israel’s geographic location, the danger that it will help ruin Moscow’s plan for a new order in Syria, and the many Israelis who immigrated from the Soviet Union and its successor states.

Across its borders in recent years, Russia has improved its access to what it calls “hybrid warfare,” which combines military force with political influence, propaganda campaigns and psychological warfare.

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Russian intervention in the U.S. presidential election is a central part of the investigation by special counsel Robert Mueller. The information Mueller is gleaning is being released only bit by bit – in court documents and selective leaks to the media. It’s subject to contradictory interpretations. According to extreme views, Donald Trump’s victory in November 2016 was the product of a Kremlin plot.

There are many claims of unusual intervention by Russia, from concealed ties with Trump’s campaign staff to the hacking of Democratic Party computers, which badly embarrassed Hillary Clinton at a crucial moment in the election campaign. But it’s possible that the Democrats’ emphasis on Russian intervention is designed to provide an explanation for the election’s inconceivable result.

Still, the events in the United States, the information gradually being revealed about the Russian campaigns of incitement and deception in European countries, the poisoning of a former Russian spy and his daughter in England, Moscow’s unqualified support for the murderous Assad regime – all this paints a very clear picture. Russia has returned to the international stage and considers itself an equal to the United States, despite Washington’s huge economic and military advantage.

And to gain dominance once again, the Russians are increasingly using all the tried and true methods of the Cold War (not that the Americans are innocent of using very similar methods). Cyberattacks, along with sophisticated propaganda and disinformation on social media, ramp up the consequences. This is already the Soviet Union on steroids, both because its rivals’ secrets are more accessible than in the past, and because it’s easier today to spread the messages to the general public.

At the same time, the Russians are helping to weaken Westerners’ confidence in the effectiveness and justness of their democracies. When Russia’s RT television films Syrians who deny that a chemical slaughter was carried out by the Assad regime, when on Twitter the Russian ambassador in London mocks the claims about the poisoning of the former spy, the purpose is the same. The propaganda isn’t designed to convince Westerners of the justness of the Kremlin’s ways, it’s to confuse their perception of reality to the point where they’ll no longer believe in anything.

With these rules of the game, which are being applied in a broad international arena, Israel is also a possible target. It’s not only the degree of the danger of the Iranian nuclear program or the strengthening of Hezbollah where Israel and Russia don’t see eye to eye. Russia is also fighting to weaken the standing of the United States in Israel, and of course America is Israel’s main strategic pillar.

“The Russians have an available target audience here and an ability to influence. The question is whether they’ll have any interest in doing so,” a defense official said. “Russia is the most sophisticated player in influence campaigns, but we haven’t seen evidence yet that it’s conducting such campaigns in Israel.”

One problem in protecting ourselves from influence campaigns is Russia’s plethora of methods, while our means of preventing them are divided among various government authorities. We can take the government’s promises at face value and believe that things are being handled properly. But it seems that the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, for example, should recall Eisenkot’s warning and examine whether we’re prepared for such campaigns, even before the election is announced.

When committee members visited Russia a few months ago to meet with their parliamentary counterparts, security experts advised them not to take their personal smartphones with them. “You’re liable to return with a friend for life,” they were told. Moscow may not believe in tears, but it certainly seems to believe in the advantages of technology.

China’s involvement a mixed bag

All the same, in the near future, a subcommittee of the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee will discuss the regional influence of another great power, China. Like Russia, China has in recent years shown increased interest in the Middle East, but it uses entirely different means. The Chinese strategy favors economic influence: large acquisitions and huge infrastructure projects. This week Bloomberg reported that private and state-owned companies have invested $318 billion in the past decade to acquire assets in Europe, from vital infrastructure to high-tech firms and soccer clubs.

Part of that is happening in Israel. Chinese companies, possibly with government subsidies from Beijing, have won large long-term infrastructure bids and are acquiring assets. In the long term, these steps also give them leverage to guarantee China future acquisitions at good terms.

Israel is responding enthusiastically to the Chinese approaches. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu often talks about the tremendous economic potential of the Chinese market, and in 2013 the government decided to encourage economic relations and made the National Economic Council responsible for coordinating the process.

In recent years Chinese companies have been building the Tel Aviv light rail. They’re also involved in the Trans-Israel Highway, dug the Carmel Tunnels, are expanding the Ashdod and Haifa ports and have been put in charge of maintaining part of the Haifa Port for the next 20 years.

In isolated cases, the government decided to restrict their activity. Dorit Salinger, the supervisor of capital markets, insurance and savings, halted Chinese acquisitions of the Clal and Phoenix insurers. Intervention by security organizations prevented the sale of part of cellular communications provider Pelephone to a Chinese company and halted Chinese participation in a construction project at Ben-Gurion Airport.

These steps, which are partial and uncoordinated, are related to Israel’s understanding of potential risks. As reported in Haaretz, China showed its bargaining power when it stopped a process in which a former Israeli defense official was supposed to testify on the use of Palestinian terror money via a Chinese bank. When the success of Netanyahu’s visit to China was on the agenda, Israel retreated and reconciled itself to the situation.

It seems Israel must be aware of the possible risks, both large and small. For example, was there any examination of putting China in charge of the Tel Aviv light rail, which passes only a few meters from the General Staff’s base at Defense Ministry headquarters? And what’s the significance of putting a foreign company in charge of a complex system of control, monitoring and cameras for years to come?

Other Western countries are more aware of these risks. Australia has passed laws requiring a special permit for foreign investments topping $150 million, and the United States has expanded legislation – with China in mind – requiring security permits (from the FBI among others) for large acquisitions by foreigners.

The Americans also forbid federal employees from using Chinese technology such as Huawei smartphones for fear that information-gathering components will be embedded in them. Israeli defense officials are thought to be exercising caution on this issue, although security sources refuse to confirm that there is a specific policy.

The Chinese authorities aren’t hostile to Israel, and the impression is that the Chinese admire Israeli creativity and initiative. But considering the difference in size between the parties, China also seems to be indifferent to the strategic considerations that preoccupy Israel. Israel must do a better job preparing for the challenge posed by Chinese influence in the region, just as it’s beginning to understand the Russian challenge. And this isn’t because of Sinophobia; it’s simply realism.

Brig. Gen. (res.) Assaf Orion, head of the Israel-China research program at the Institute for National Security Studies, tells Haaretz that “China and to a great extent Russia present Israel with a new type of national-security challenge. These are countries with patience and the ability to plan and learn in depth and for the long term.”

As Orion puts it, “Relations with them represent an economic opportunity that Israel must learn how to exploit, while being aware of the differences in interests and the risks. That requires the government to organize differently, because the balance of power here is to our detriment and we haven’t acquired experience in tackling such challenges.”