January 9, 2019 / 12:37 PM / a month ago

Israel pledges no election meddling as speculation swirls over Russia

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu eulogises former Defense Minister Moshe Arens during his funeral in Tel Aviv, Israel January 8, 2019. REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun

JERUSALEM/MOSCOW (Reuters) - Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu pledged on Wednesday that there would be no meddling in Israel’s April election after state censors suppressed a speech by his domestic intelligence chief accusing a foreign power of planning to hack the vote.

Under the gag order described as a security precaution, media in Israel were barred from naming the country that Shin Bet chief Nadav Argaman, addressing a by-invitation audience at Tel Aviv University on Monday, said was trying to interfere.

Israeli newspaper commentators speculated that he had pointed the finger at Russia, which Netanyahu’s own intelligence minister, Israel Katz, told local media last month could potentially want to replicate in Israel an alleged online influence campaign and email hacking to help Donald Trump win the U.S. ballot in 2016.

Russia has denied any such interference. Netanyahu, asked by reporters about the Argaman flap, offered a general reassurance.

“Israel is braced to foil cyber interference. We are ready for any scenario. There is no country better prepared than us,” he said.

The censor’s edict, newspaper commentators said, appeared to be an attempt to avoid friction with Russia, the main backer of Syria, where Israel has carried out dozens of air strikes on suspected Iranian and Lebanese Hezbollah guerrilla targets.

In Moscow, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said: “Russia has not interfered, does not interfere and doesn’t intend to interfere in any election in any country in the world.”

The fourth-term Netanyahu, who enjoys a rapport with Russian President Vladimir Putin and Trump, leads the polls.

Writing by Dan WilliamsAdditional reporting by Andrey Ostroukh in Moscow, Editing by Jeffrey Heller, William Maclean

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