In November 2017, former Israeli Supreme Court judge Dorit Beinisch released a report detailing her findings during a two-and-a-half-year examination of Israel’s Election Law. Beinisch, the first woman to serve as president of Israel’s top court, had been appointed to head the investigation by President Reuven Rivlin and Salim Joubran, another ex-Supreme Court judge, in the summer of 2015. At the time, Joubran, who heads Israel’s Central Elections Committee, described the Election Law, drafted back in 1959, and with few amendments since, as “outdated” and “archaic” because it did not address “today’s most popular media tool, in general, and even more so during an election campaign – the Internet.” Beinisch agreed, arguing that the Central Election Committee needed modern legal tools to address online meddling, and that election propaganda laws should be extended to the Internet.
These were not strictly theoretical concerns. To get a sense of what online election interference looks like in Israel, you only have to go back a few months to municipal elections held in October 2018. Just days before that vote, as the Times of Israel reported, Israel’s cyber agency, the National Cyber Directorate, asked Facebook to remove thousands of fake profiles spreading false information about candidates. According to the directorate’s Erez Tidhar, Israel also requested Facebook delete “a lot of avatars (profiles on social media) created to try to change public opinion and to manipulate information.” Those revelations followed various media reports earlier in 2018 investigating the role of online trolls in Israeli politics, as well as the proliferation of fake social media accounts – in the hundreds of thousands – controlled by political parties and municipalities.
Now, as Israelis get ready for another election, serious concerns are again being raised about online tampering. Just last week, Nadav Argaman, head of security services for the Shin Bet, warned of a foreign state that “intends to intervene” in Israel’s national elections. “I can’t say at this point for whom or against whom” the attack would be, “but it involves cyber (attacks) and hacking,” Argaman said. (Israel’s military censors would not allow media to report which nation Argaman was talking about, but it was widely assumed to be Russia.) Responding to Argaman’s warning, Israel’s Central Elections Committee said, “we learned what happened in other countries and we are devising a plan of action.”
Meanwhile, a bill based on Beinisch’s recommendations is making its way through the Knesset. It would compel the creators of paid political content to publicly identify themselves, and would apply even to those who simply comment on online ads. All of Israel’s major political parties say they support passing the bill immediately – all of the parties, that is, except one: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud, whose chief legal adviser, Avi Halevi, said over the weekend that it was “not realistic” to push the bill through in a “rushed and careless” manner. “We will support it,” he added, “but it will take time, and I’m not sure how long.” (Some Israeli media reported that Netanyahu personally ordered the bill delayed.)
Let’s hope it doesn’t take them too much longer to come around. For Israeli voters, there’s no better time than the present to get serious about online interference.