Foreign Interference in Israeli Elections

Saudi Arabia has become a major influencer in the Israeli political system, according to recent intel reports

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Senior security officials, including Israel Security Agency (Shabak) chief Nadav Argaman, report that while foreign intelligence agencies are attempting to interfere in the upcoming Israeli elections through cyber-attacks and fake news, Saudi Arabia is trying to interfere using more traditional methods.

According to a perspective paper released yesterday (February 17, 2019) by the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies (Besa), Saudi Arabia is interested in getting an Israeli government that will be aligned with its regional interests. We all watched with fascination as the Saudi government reached out to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the recent conference in Poland.

Ever since Russia’s fake information assault on the American political system in 2016, hacking, fake news, bots, and trolls are what come to mind regarding attempts to illicitly manipulate elections and affect democracies’ public discourse. The success of such means, and the fact that they have captured the public imagination, should not allow us to assume that the more traditional methods of influencing another country’s political system have gone out of circulation. They may be out of fashion, but they still exist, and countries are still making good use of them.

“Traditional” refers to hiring PR teams, advertising agencies, and policy advocacy and lobbying companies to promote a country’s interests and agenda, both diplomatic and economic. In addition, it not infrequently includes funding politicians, and sometimes a particular party as well.

No country has made more extensive use of these methods than Saudi Arabia. It hires the best lawyers, lobbyists, and advertising agencies money can buy (or rent) in the US, Britain, and other countries of interest to them.

Despite its willingness to meddle in other countries’ political systems via the above-mentioned means, Saudi Arabia never attempted to target Israel in the past. Its antipathy toward Israel was so strong that it refused to do anything that would require any kind of contact with the Jewish state, despite the potential gains. Previously, the oil-rich kingdom ignored pleas from Jordan, Egypt, and the Palestinian Authority to provide them with funding to influence Israeli politics in this way.

This policy seems to have changed. It is an open secret that Jerusalem and Riyadh have begun to cautiously develop a covert, mutually-beneficial relationship, especially between their respective intelligence agencies. This is not surprising, since both countries regard Iran as their most dangerous enemy. Both are determined to prevent the Islamic Republic from realizing its goals of obtaining unfettered access to the Mediterranean and becoming a nuclear power.

There is a not-insubstantial level of circumstantial evidence indicating some level of Saudi involvement also with the Labor party, the left-leaning faction likely to remain in the opposition after the Israeli elections in April. If, in 2020, the Saudis find themselves having to deal with a Democratic White House and Congress, it could be a train wreck for them. They understand that any Netanyahu-lead Likud government would face major problems of its own in such an environment, and would be hard-pressed to maintain its influence in Washington, let alone help the Saudis. The most promising solution to this problem would be for the Saudis to develop a relationship with an internationally-respected Israeli political entity that would enjoy a reasonably good working relationship with a White House and Congress dominated by the Democrats. Labor is the Israeli party that best meets those criteria; hence its attractiveness to the Saudis as a potentially valuable strategic asset.

The House of Saud has two main objectives: its survival, and containing Iran. Despite its huge defense budget, its performance in Yemen has highlighted just how lamentable Saudi military capabilities are. It knows the only potential regional ally capable of defeating Iran is Israel. It also knows that robust support, or at the very least tacit acquiescence from Washington, is vital for any such Israeli-Saudi alliance to achieve its strategic goal of effectively curbing Iranian ambitions.

While the Saudis continue to cozy up to Netanyahu, behind the scenes they are keeping their substantial monies on Labor, as well.

PHOTO: Labor Party members celebrate after their party’s primaries in Tel Aviv. (Gili Yaari/Flash90)


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