The Cipher Brief Experts on National Security

  • Why the China – Russia Relationship Should Worry You – Part Two
    by Suzanne Kelly on June 9, 2021 at 12:20 pm

    When the PRC decides to move on Taiwan, it is unlikely to move in a manner that makes a US decision on intervention clear cut.  Should China decide, initially at least, against a full-scale invasion of that island nation, it could instead opt to try to “win without fighting.” Beijing might do so by using … Continue reading “Why the China – Russia Relationship Should Worry You – Part Two” The post Why the China – Russia Relationship Should Worry You – Part Two appeared first on The Cipher Brief.

  • Why the China – Russia Relationship Should Worry You – Part One
    by Suzanne Kelly on June 8, 2021 at 4:01 am

    In 1937, Winston Churchill contrasted the “two rival religions” of Nazism and Communism then afflicting the world.  Those fascist and communist “infernal twins”, he wrote, “imagine themselves as exact opposites” but are, in fact “similar in all essentials”, breeding in reaction to each other.  Today’s ‘infernal twins’ – China and Russia – are ostensible great … Continue reading “Why the China – Russia Relationship Should Worry You – Part One” The post Why the China – Russia Relationship Should Worry You – Part One appeared first on The Cipher Brief.

  • Mapping China by the Numbers: The Role of International Cooperation
    by Suzanne Kelly on June 4, 2021 at 1:43 pm

    As part of a week-long series focused on Mapping China’s Ambitions, The Cipher Brief is partnering with Harvard Research Fellow and former British diplomat Jamie Burnham to explore China’s threat vectors, how it is organizing to win, what a government ecosystem looks like and the impact that international collaboration will have in the future. Today, Burnham … Continue reading “Mapping China by the Numbers: The Role of International Cooperation” The post Mapping China by the Numbers: The Role of International Cooperation appeared first on The Cipher Brief.

  • Mapping China by the Numbers: Toward a Government Data Ecosystem
    by Suzanne Kelly on June 3, 2021 at 4:01 am

    As part of a week-long series focused on Mapping China’s Ambitions, The Cipher Brief is partnering with Harvard Research Fellow and former British diplomat Jamie Burnham to explore China’s threat vectors, how it is organizing to win, what a government ecosystem looks like and the impact that international collaboration will have in the future. Today, Burnham … Continue reading “Mapping China by the Numbers: Toward a Government Data Ecosystem” The post Mapping China by the Numbers: Toward a Government Data Ecosystem appeared first on The Cipher Brief.

  • Mapping China by the Numbers: Organizing to Win
    by Suzanne Kelly on June 2, 2021 at 1:42 pm

    As part of a week-long series focused on Mapping China’s Ambitions, The Cipher Brief is partnering with Harvard Research Fellow and former British diplomat Jamie Burnham to explore China’s threat vectors, how it is organizing to win, what a government ecosystem looks like and the impact that international collaboration will have in the future. Yesterday in … Continue reading “Mapping China by the Numbers: Organizing to Win” The post Mapping China by the Numbers: Organizing to Win appeared first on The Cipher Brief.

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  • Iran presidential voting begins, with hardline cleric expected to win
    by Agence France-Presse in Tehran on June 18, 2021 at 9:01 am

    Opposition groups urge boycott of election from which serious rivals to Ebrahim Raisi were barredIranians are voting in a presidential election in which the ultraconservative cleric Ebrahim Raisi is seen as all but certain to coast to victory, after all serious rivals were barred from running.After a lacklustre campaign, turnout was expected to plummet to a new low in a country exhausted by a punishing regime of US economic sanctions that has dashed hopes for a brighter future. Continue reading…

  • Bad strategy? How the Republican attack on voting rights could backfire
    by Joan E Greve on June 18, 2021 at 9:00 am

    Republicans are pushing hundreds of bills to limit voting access. Some measures may get in the way of their own votersAs the coronavirus wreaked havoc around the world, lawmakers in the US were faced with a monumental task: carrying out a presidential election in the middle of a once-in-century pandemic.Concerned about the possibility of virus spread at polling places, Democrats pushed the federal government to approve more funding for states to expand absentee and early-voting options. Continue reading…

  • A silent decimation: South America’s losing battle against Covid
    by William Costa in Asunción, Uki Goñi in Buenos Aires, Flávia Milhorance in Rio de Janeiro, Dan Collyns and Sam Jones on June 18, 2021 at 9:00 am

    Strained and underfunded health systems, economics and misinformation have all led to a surge in deathsThe cold, tired and desperate relatives camped outside the Barrio Obrero general hospital in Asunción don’t need charts or datasets to confirm what they can see with their own eyes.As Paraguay records the world’s highest daily proportion of Covid deaths, the huddled families wait for news of their loved ones – and for the sudden requests for medicine and supplies that the country’s chronically underfunded health system cannot provide. Continue reading…

  • Covid live: Israel to send 1m vaccines to Palestine in reciprocal deal; South Korea mixes doses amid supply issues
    by Martin Belam (now) and Helen Sullivan (earlier) on June 18, 2021 at 8:59 am

    Palestinian Authority agrees to send same amount back to Israel later this year; 760,000 South Koreans to get Pfizer second shot after initial AstraZeneca dose; England opens vaccines to all over 18s;UK’s green list update will be ‘cautious’, insiders warnPrevious Covid infection may not offer long-term protectionNetherlands offers free pickled herring as Covid jab incentiveMinisters will not tell workers to return to office when lockdown endsSee all our coronavirus coverage 9.59am BST Israel will give around 1m doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech coronavirus vaccine to the Palestinian Authority, newly-installed Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s office said on Friday.Reuters report that in a joint statement with the health and defence ministries, Bennett’s office said the Palestinian Authority in exchange had agreed to give Israel a reciprocal number of Pfizer doses from one of its own shipments that is expected to arrive later this year. 9.54am BST As expected, Russia has seen a big jump in case numbers today. Reuters report the official numbers are 17,262 new Covid cases, including a record 9,056 in Moscow. There were 453 coronavirus-related deaths in the past 24 hours. Continue reading…

  • ByteDance revenues more than double on back of TikTok boom
    by Mark Sweney on June 18, 2021 at 8:57 am

    Owner of video-sharing app also reports a 93% increase in gross profit to $19bn in 2020ByteDance, the Chinese parent of TikTok, more than doubled its revenues last year as usage of the hugely popular video app boomed.The company, which last year weathered pressure from Donald Trump to sell its US operation as part of a trade war with China, reported a 111% increase in revenues to $34.3bn (£24.7bn). Continue reading…

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  • How Northern Ireland is complicating Biden’s European agenda
    by Jen Kirby on June 17, 2021 at 1:00 pm

    President Joe Biden and UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson on the first day of the Group of Seven leaders summit on June 11. | Hollie Adams/Bloomberg/Getty Images Can Joe Biden do anything about the Brexit fallout? President Joe Biden had two goals for his trip to Europe: reassure allies that America is engaged again, and rally like-minded democracies to stand together against authoritarians such as China. But that unity is being complicated by an increasingly tense rift between the United Kingdom and the European Union over Brexit trade arrangements in Northern Ireland. Northern Ireland factored heavily into the Brexit negotiations, as maintaining an open border on the island of Ireland was critical to preserving a more than 20-year peace process. The UK and EU came to a compromise plan, but the implementation has faced significant hurdles, and the fallout is inflaming tensions among some communities in Northern Ireland. The future of Northern Ireland is important to Biden both politically and personally, and he’s far from the only US politician who feels the same. But the deepening distrust between the UK and the EU also poses a threat to Biden’s broader foreign policy agenda. Which is why the US president could become a player in one of the thorniest issues in all of Brexit. Whether he’s able to ease the standoff will be a test of Biden’s diplomacy, and US influence on the continent post-Trump. The EU-UK spat is about a really sensitive border. Also, sausages. Before we get to what Biden is doing, it’s probably helpful to explain what is going on. Brexit happened, and the United Kingdom formally left the European Union. But the UK and EU are still arguing over the deal they both signed on the status of Northern Ireland. When the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union in 2016, it created the tricky issue of what to do about the land border between Northern Ireland (which is part of the UK) and the Republic of Ireland (which is an independent country and part of the EU). It is no ordinary border. During the decades of bloody sectarian conflict in Northern Ireland known as the Troubles, that border was heavily militarized, and it served as both a symbol of the strife and a very real target for nationalist paramilitary groups. A critical part of the Good Friday Agreement, the 1998 peace process that ended the Troubles, involved increasing cooperation between Northern Ireland and Ireland. That meant softening the border between the two. As a result, the 310-mile border is practically invisible and completely free from checks and physical infrastructure today. But once the UK and EU split up, that would become the only land border between the UK and Europe. And with the two sides following different trade rules (that was one of the main points of Brexit), there would need to be some kind of checks put back in place to regulate the goods crossing the border. So you see the problem: Not having any checkpoints or physical border is seen as critical to maintaining the peace. But the UK’s departure from the EU (and its trading rules) made some sort of customs check necessary. Charles McQuillan/Getty Images Brexit stoked violence in Northern Ireland in April. The UK and the EU ultimately coalesced around a plan that carved out a special status for Northern Ireland. It would leave with the UK but follow many of the EU’s rules, thus keeping that land border open. To achieve this, certain goods coming into Northern Ireland from the rest of Great Britain would require checks, just in case they ended up in the EU’s single market. This put a customs border in the Irish Sea — effectively, within the UK. Once the Brexit transition period ended at the start of 2021, that Northern Ireland protocol started to become a reality — and, with it, new trade frictions that hadn’t existed before. That was even before all the terms of the deal were implemented, as the protocol provided grace periods for certain rules. In March, a set of grace periods expired for some provisions, and at the time, the UK just unilaterally extended those deadlines. The EU reminded the UK that, this being a treaty and all, the UK couldn’t just act alone, and so sued them for breaking international law. Now another set of grace periods is expiring at the end of the month, including a provision related to chilled meats, such as sausages. The UK now needs to start conducting regulatory checks on any chilled meats coming into Northern Ireland from the rest of Great Britain. If the UK doesn’t do them, it would effectively prevent Great Britain from selling its own sausages in Northern Ireland, since those, in theory, might be at risk of entering Ireland, which could mean illicit sausages in the EU single market. The sausage dilemma is really just the latest fracture between the EU and UK. The EU thinks Boris Johnson’s government isn’t an honest broker and is likely to renege on the protocol once again. “It’s not about sausages per se, it really is about the fact that an agreement had been entered into, not too long ago,” Irish Taoiseach (prime minister) Micheál Martin said. “If there’s consistent, unilateral deviation from that agreement, that clearly undermines the broader relationship between the European Union and the United Kingdom, which is in nobody’s interest.” Johnson, meanwhile, says he’s defending the territorial and economic integrity of the UK. His government has accused the EU of failing to do anything to minimize the trade frictions, which may leave them no choice but to get rid of the deal entirely. The problem, of course, is that Johnson himself signed up to the rules that he no longer seems to like very much. The concern now is that Johnson will once again just suspend parts of the deal, and the EU will retaliate — potentially with tariffs, increasing the likelihood of a trade spat and decreasing the chances of any real, meaningful compromise on the Northern Ireland trade protocol. If this were just a minor trade disagreement about chilled meats, that would be one thing. But the protocol has revived tensions in Northern Ireland itself, specifically among the unionist community in Northern Ireland. The unionists reject any division between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK (i.e., they support the union between Great Britain and Northern Ireland), and some feel, not totally incorrectly, that they were shunted aside in the Brexit deal. Some unionists are urging the UK to scrap the deal entirely. Northern Ireland saw unrest back in the spring, and there are fears over renewed violence, especially as “marching season” reaches its peak on July 12, when loyalists — extreme unionists — engage in parades and demonstrations. If violence does break out, this could set back the peace process, whose imperfections Brexit has exposed. This is why the Biden administration repeatedly invokes the Good Friday Agreement, and brought it up ahead of, and during, Biden’s trip to Europe. Biden was always going to matter in the Brexit aftermath Biden was always going to be a potential force in the post-Brexit EU-UK fallout, and, as in many things, he’s quite the contrast to former President Donald Trump. Trump liked the idea of Brexit and was eager to strike a free trade deal with the United Kingdom, something Johnson and Brexiteers sold as a big prize when the UK left the EU. Biden, never a fan of Brexit, made one thing very clear both as a candidate and as president: that the UK’s exit from the EU must not undermine the Good Friday Agreement, which diplomatic efforts by the Clinton administration helped shape. Biden also has a much deeper interest in the status of Northern Ireland for both political and personal reasons. He was among a group of senators pushing for US engagement on the issue since the 1980s, and he was the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee during the Clinton administration’s efforts to build a peace deal in Northern Ireland. Biden, like many other bipartisan lawmakers, sees the US’s role in the peace process as a major foreign policy achievement, and he wants to preserve that. Also, in case you haven’t heard, Biden is of Irish heritage, which has profoundly shaped his identity. Jack Hill/Getty Images President Joe Biden and first lady Jill Biden meet with Queen Elizabeth II during the G7 summit on June 11. A trade deal with the United Kingdom also just isn’t as big a priority for the Biden administration as it was for Trump, and both Biden and many powerful Democrats in Congress have said any US-UK deal should be contingent on the protection of the Good Friday Agreement. All of this meant Biden was expected to be more proactive on the Northern Ireland issue. And the president’s first foreign trip just happened to coincide with the increased tensions in the EU and the UK over Northern Ireland, meaning the US president’s position mattered more than ever — and, in some ways, the implications of the EU and the UK’s bickering stood out even more. How Biden has flexed his diplomacy on Northern Ireland so far Biden has stepped up the pressure, particularly on London, to resolve the sausage wars. Ahead of his trip, National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan advertised that Biden would bring up the issue with Johnson. “Any steps that imperil or undermine [the Good Friday Agreement] will not be welcomed by the United States,” Sullivan told reporters last week. The United States made a few other moves as Biden headed overseas. The first involved reassurances the Biden administration reportedly gave to the Johnson government over a possible US-UK trade deal, saying that if the UK agreed to follow EU veterinary and food standards temporarily, it wouldn’t jeopardize a possible free trade agreement with the US. This seemingly benign statement about food standards is actually kind of a big deal: The US usually tries to advance its own agriculture sector in trade deals, and the US has different food standards than either the UK or the EU. (You may recall the “chlorinated chicken” debate around US-UK trade talks.) But this statement is the US basically telling the UK, “Don’t worry about us — getting yourself in order with the EU is the main thing.” And truly, if the EU and UK don’t diverge on standards on animals, food, and plants, it could eliminate a vast majority of the checks on goods coming from the rest of the UK to Northern Ireland. As Roger Mac Ginty, professor of defense, development, and diplomacy at Durham University, wrote in an email, the US-UK trade deal is the biggest point of leverage for the US administration. One of the reasons the UK had bristled at EU standards was over trade deals, including with the US. So this little nudge matters. The Biden administration also reportedly offered a more direct admonishment of the Johnson government. Before Biden’s trip, the British newspaper The Times reported that the top US diplomat in London sent what’s known as a demarche, a diplomatic cable that’s basically a formal rebuke, to chief Brexit negotiator David Frost, saying the UK was “inflaming” tensions. The White House denied that it sent the formal reprimand, but the leak itself seemed to show that the US wasn’t messing around. “That’s not low-key diplomacy, that’s a big slap on the wrist, and the US doesn’t usually do that to the UK,” said Liam Kennedy, a professor of American Studies at the Clinton Institute at the University College Dublin. The issue of Northern Ireland also loomed over Biden’s in-person meeting with Johnson. Biden broached the subject with him and pushed for the two sides to work out their differences. Sullivan, the national security adviser, told reporters the two leaders had a “candid” discussion but wouldn’t go into details. Johnson told reporters Biden didn’t pressure him on the issue (and called Biden a “breath of fresh air”), but the Good Friday Agreement featured heavily in their joint communique. Etain Tannam, professor of international peace studies at Trinity College in Dublin, also noted that the statement included references to “reconciliation.” This was important, she said, as it signaled a recognition of the increasing tensions within certain communities in Northern Ireland, and the need to mitigate them. “President Biden did put that word to the forefront in a way that, before Brexit, I wouldn’t have heard as much,” she said. Experts said all of this shows some pretty clear pressure on London, which is dependent on its partnership with the US more than ever now that it’s out of the EU. Timothy White, an expert in Irish politics at Xavier University, said in some ways this reflects Biden’s larger worldview, “that diplomacy is the best way for America to pursue its interests.” He added that Biden is not trying to get directly involved in negotiations between the EU and UK, but is making clear the US objective. “And bottom line is we want the peace that was achieved in the Good Friday Agreement to be preserved,” White said. Biden has big foreign policy plans, and a lack of resolution on Northern Ireland threatens them If Biden got a message across to Johnson, it didn’t stop the growing distrust between the EU and the UK from bleeding into the Group of Seven meeting this week. That summit showcased the fractures in the EU-UK relationship at a gathering that was largely supposed to be about cohesion in the face of threats from the pandemic, climate change, China, and more. Instead, the rift over Northern Ireland, and the obvious tensions between Johnson and EU leaders, took many of the headlines. The animosity is a threat to Northern Irish peace. But the UK-EU tensions are also undermining his larger foreign policy agenda: Just as the US is trying to repair its friendships in this trans-Atlantic relationship, tensions are rising between two critical partners in that arrangement. Jack Hill/Getty Images World leaders attending the G7 summit arrive for a reception with Queen Elizabeth II in St. Austell, England on June 11. “There’s a sense that the two sides should figure out the differences so that they can at least avoid more tension between the UK and the EU and, rather, promote more unity, and to be able to focus together on what [Biden] sees [as] being the big challenges — countering Russia and China and strengthening the democratic West,” said Erik Brattberg, director of the Europe Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. The “sausage wars” may sound silly, but Biden will struggle to create this coalition of democracies to serve as a counterweight to authoritarianism if the EU-UK divorce keeps getting in the way. And it’s just a lot harder to sell the vision that the US and its partners are the ones to trust over China when key members of that group are backing out of agreements or engaging in a trade war. The UK and the EU are meeting for more talks, one of many, many, many discussions the two will have in the aftermath of Brexit. And even as Biden heads back to Washington, experts said he can, and should, continue to engage. The biggest way he can do that, experts say, is by appointing a special envoy to Northern Ireland, something most of his predecessors did (including Trump). Members of Congress have been pushing Biden to do so. Biden also still hasn’t appointed a UK ambassador, who would be critical to any diplomatic efforts. The US wants to preserve and reinforce the Good Friday Agreement. It will apply pressure accordingly, but also sparingly. As experts pointed out, despite the high stakes, this is a trade dispute between the EU and the UK, and they’re going to have to do the messy, ongoing work of figuring out their post-Brexit future. Biden’s job, instead, is to keep this democratic team together. As Kennedy, of UCD Dublin, said, the UK may not be in the European Union anymore, but Biden’s goal is to get everyone aligned, and on the same side, and make clear the stakes if they are not. “That,” Kennedy said, “is also the message to the rest of the world — and especially to China.”

  • Biden’s big Putin bet
    by Alex Ward on June 16, 2021 at 8:30 pm

    US President Joe Biden (right) and Russian President Vladimir Putin shake hands ahead of their summit in Geneva, Switzerland, on June 16. | Mikhail Svetlov/Getty Images What Biden actually means when he says “all foreign policy is the logical extension of personal relationships.” If one phrase defines President Joe Biden’s approach to negotiating, it’s “all politics is personal.” When he uses that line, he aims to convey a rock-ribbed belief that finding what the other person can and can’t accept — be it a member of Congress from the other party or a foreign leader — will eventually lead to better relations and even mutually agreeable deals. During a Wednesday press conference following his Geneva summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin, Biden showed once more that he puts a lot of faith in that approach. “All foreign policy is the logical extension of personal relationships,” Biden said. “It’s the way human nature functions.” That’s not Biden saying all it takes to improve US-Russia relations is to have a one-on-one chat with Putin, although they did have a roughly 90-minute discussion. It meant, as he went on to explain, that because of that discussion, both men are now clear on what red lines not to cross as they seek to cooperate on arms control, cybersecurity, and more. That outcome, in Biden’s mind, was worth the trip. “What I’m saying is I think there’s a genuine prospect to significantly improve relations between our two countries without us giving up a single, solitary thing based on principle and our values,” he told reporters. “This is not just about self-interest. It’s about mutual self-interest.” It’s the clearest distillation yet of how Biden thinks about foreign policy and diplomacy. Sure, there are constraints on what can be achieved, but the only way to make progress is to hear the other person out and find areas of common ground. The problem for Biden is that it might not work. “Personal diplomacy can matter. But it’s not the foundation for foreign policy and can’t overcome major structural constraints or national interests,” said Elizabeth Saunders, an associate professor at Georgetown University. Biden is hoping his personal touch will work on Putin Every American president since George W. Bush has tried some sort of reset with Putin’s Russia with the hope of improving relations between the two countries. Some, like President Donald Trump, also believed that engaging mano a mano with Putin would get him to change his behavior. But Biden does seem to believe that he offers something different: a clear-eyed view that he can’t change Putin, but he can work with him where the two countries’ interests align. Some of those include fighting terrorism, reaching a political solution in Syria, finding ways to coexist in the Arctic, reducing the likelihood of nuclear war, and more. This is all a big bet for Biden to make, and the Geneva summit showed precisely why. Other than a promise to hold talks on a future nuclear agreement and an end to cyber hacking, along with the return of ambassadors to each other’s capital cities, little of actual substance came out of the meeting. “The image of flying somewhere to look the adversary in the eye and make a breakthrough is misleading. It’s very rare,” said Saunders, though she noted that “regular discussions can keep information flowing.” What’s more, it’s possible the summit could end up backfiring on Biden, especially if Putin soon decides to launch a cyberattack against the US or allow prominent dissident Alexei Navalny to die in prison — two things Biden warned would be unacceptable to the US. That would put Biden in the position of having to retaliate forcefully with sanctions or other measures, experts say, derailing any efforts to get US-Russia relations back on track. Knowing the long odds, even Biden acknowledged his bet might not pay off. “Let’s see what happens,” he said at his press conference. “I’m not confident [Putin] will change his behavior.” Analysts share that skeptical view, saying that reiterating America’s stances won’t have much of an effect on Putin. “We can deliver a message, as other presidents have, but from the Russian perspective, they’ve heard this before,” said Alina Polyakova, president and CEO of the Center for European Policy Analysis in Washington, DC. But the president has now played his hand, and by doing so he’s put his “all foreign policy is personal” play to the test. Biden expects he’ll find out if he made the right call soon enough: “We’re going to be able to … look ahead in three to six months and say, ‘Did the things we agreed to sit down and try to work out, did it work?’”

  • Biden says Putin “knows there are consequences” if cyberattacks continue
    by Sara Morrison on June 16, 2021 at 6:45 pm

    Amanda Northrop/Vox Biden and Putin had a long talk about cyberattacks in Wednesday’s meeting. If you found yourself in an hours-long line for expensive gas last month, then you’re probably familiar with the damage that ransomware attacks can do. The federal government certainly is. During President Joe Biden’s much-anticipated first meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday, the two leaders said they talked about the recent cyberattacks on some of the United States’ most crucial systems and infrastructure, many of which have been traced to Russia. They agreed to further discuss both what critical infrastructure should be considered off-limits to cyberattacks and how to go after ransomware gangs operating within their borders. Last year’s SolarWinds hack was directly attributed to the Russian government, and recent ransomware attacks on industries, including energy, food, and transportation, have been blamed on criminal organizations based in or near Russia — possibly with the country’s knowledge and approval. Putin claimed in a subsequent press conference that Russia had nothing to do with the attacks (he has denied any involvement in the past). In a separate press conference, Biden said he told Putin in no uncertain terms that the cyberattacks couldn’t go on. “He knows there are consequences,” Biden said. Biden also said he told Putin that he expects Russia to act against any criminal ransomware organizations operating within its borders, just as the United States would against any organizations operating within its own. The United States government has already stepped up its response back home. The Biden administration sent a letter to corporations and business leaders with recommendations for how they can better protect themselves from attacks, and a plea that they do so. The DOJ formed a task force dedicated to ransomware, which has already managed to recover part of the ransom Colonial Pipeline paid to its attackers. And FBI director Christopher Wray even compared the ransomware attack epidemic to 9/11. Wray’s comparison might be a bit extreme. There’s no evidence that a ransomware attack has been directly responsible for any deaths, let alone nearly 3,000 of them. But it should now be clear to everyone that ransomware is a serious issue that affects and disrupts even the most critical sectors. The attacks are ramping up in frequency and severity, and the US government is ready to throw everything it can at the problem in order to stop them — including, reportedly, giving ransomware attack investigations the same priority that they do terrorism. But for all that, ransomware isn’t new. There have been several high-profile attacks in the last few months that have given the issue more attention, but ransomware has been a major, and growing, issue for years. Wealthier and more sophisticated criminal organizations, new extortion tactics, and the pandemic have exacerbated the problem. But other factors — cryptocurrency, poor cybersecurity, and the fact that the ransoms often get paid and the attackers get away with it — have been around for a long time. And they may be here for a long time to come. A stern lecture at the leader of the Russian government almost certainly won’t be enough to stop them. Ransomware, explained Ransomware is malware that locks up access to its victim’s systems and then demands a ransom, usually in cryptocurrency, to unlock them. How the malware gets in the systems depends on the type used, but email phishing attacks are one of the most common ways. You may only need one employee out of thousands to open the wrong email and click on the wrong link if a company’s systems are properly secured, and spoofed emails can be pretty convincing. Hackers may also exploit vulnerabilities in a company’s systems or mount a brute force attack, which involves guessing at access credentials (like passwords) until they get one right. “It could be a user with a weak password, it could be a user that clicks on a phishing email, or it could be a vulnerability in the system itself,” Jonathan Katz, a professor of computer science at the University of Maryland, told Recode. “One way or the other, they’re able to get this malware installed on computer systems.” The most common victims have been institutions or companies that are especially vulnerable to an attack and motivated to get their systems back online as soon as possible. The health care sector, for instance, has been one of the most targeted because the consequences of not paying the ransom quickly can be dire, from not being able to provide health care to sensitive patient data being leaked — or even the patients themselves being blackmailed not to have their data released. Municipal or government systems, from school districts to large cities like Atlanta and Baltimore, have also been frequent targets of ransomware. But just because health and government systems have historically been the most likely targets doesn’t mean organizations in other sectors should assume they’re safe. If it wasn’t obvious by now, attacks can and do hit anyone. Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call, Inc/Getty Images Fears of gasoline shortages stemming from the Colonial Pipeline shutdown led many Americans to panic-buy at the pump. Before the gas pumps went dry, you may have been paying for ransomware attacks without realizing it. When government systems are attacked, the cost is ultimately borne by the taxpayer, just as consumers often cover the cost of attacks on large companies (or smaller ones, assuming the attack doesn’t put them out of business first). And the cost of fully recovering from a ransomware attack often far exceeds the ransom itself — it could be months of time and millions of dollars. Cybersecurity Ventures predicts that ransomware damage will cost $20 billion worldwide in 2021, up from $325 million just six years ago. But it can cost even more not to pay the ransom at all, so the victims pay up. The victims are paying more, too: The average ransom amount has increased along with the number of attacks. Due to the fact that the majority of victims never go public, it’s impossible to get an exact number, but one estimate says that the average ransom payment more than doubled between 2019 and 2020, from $115,000 to $315,000. When large companies like Colonial Pipeline, JBS Foods, and CNA Financial get hit, ransom payments are in the millions. It’s believed that ransomware gangs pulled in at least $350 million in 2020. Check Point Software told Recode that the number of attacks doubled between 2020 and 2021. One commonly cited global statistic says businesses will be attacked by ransomware every 11 seconds by the end of 2021, though other estimates are far more conservative. Check Point, for example, says about 1,000 organizations were attacked every week in April 2021 — or, once every 10 minutes. This all suggests that criminals are becoming bolder and, well, greedy. “Not only has there been a huge uptick in the number of attacks, but the amount being demanded of victim companies has just skyrocketed,” Peter Marta, cybersecurity law expert at Hogan Lovells and former head of cybersecurity law at JPMorgan Chase, told Recode. “I don’t think anybody could have predicted a year and a half ago, where we would be today.” And while the US government has issued statements over the years saying that ransomware attacks were a real threat that companies needed to take seriously and protect themselves from, the Colonial Pipeline attack took its response to a new level. The evolution of ransomware Ransomware has actually been around since the 1980s (the first known instance was distributed on floppy disks, with ransom payments made in cashier’s checks or money orders mailed to a post office box in Panama), but it wasn’t until 2013, with the emergence of the CryptoLocker virus, that cybersecurity researchers started to see it as a real and growing threat. CryptoLocker was distributed via spoofed emails with attachments. Once the victim downloaded the attachment, their files were locked up, and they were told to pay a small ransom to unlock them, ideally in bitcoin. “CryptoLocker was the first successful ‘mass distribution’ ransomware,” Lotem Finkelsteen, head of threat intelligence at cybersecurity firm Check Point, explained. “Up until CryptoLocker, it was very rare to see ransomware. … Bitcoin, in a way, assisted in the ransomware blossom. And the rest is history.” Bitcoin, as a global decentralized digital currency, made it much easier for criminals to collect ransom payments and harder for authorities to trace, let alone recover — although, as we’ve recently seen, recovering the ransom is not impossible. Ransoms were paid, the attackers got away with them, and over time and with more money, they’ve evolved into sophisticated criminal enterprises, offering ransomware-as-a-service to partners and creating what some experts liken to franchises. All of which makes ransomware more accessible to attackers who might otherwise not have had the know-how or payment mechanisms. “The commoditization of ransomware overall … has made this so much easier for anybody to get into the game,” said Steve Turner, a cybersecurity analyst at Forrester. And some, it seems, have become brazen enough to attack massive companies and demand huge ransoms while potentially disrupting the lives of millions all over the world. “There’s no mystery why some of these folks are being targeted,” said Mark Ostrowski, head of engineering at Check Point. “Big bang for the buck. Big interruption, big return.” In cases where hackers are identified and charged for their attacks, they’re usually well out of the reach of US authorities — in North Korea or Iran, for instance. Why we’re seeing so many attacks now With the recent spate of high-profile attacks on companies from different yet important sectors — energy, food, transportation, finance, technology, and communications — it’s understandable that the average person might think the US is under some kind of coordinated attack as part of a brewing cyberwar. That these attacks are coming on the heels of the SolarWinds cyberattack, which is believed to have been orchestrated and carried out by the Russian government, likely contributes to that impression. But SolarWinds was not a ransomware attack, and while it’s true that many ransomware operations are based in or around Russia, possibly with some kind of informal agreement with the Russian government that they can go about their business as long as they don’t attack Russia or its allies, many experts attribute the recent attacks to other factors, and the primary motivation to money. Starting a year and a half ago, two things happened: Attackers started not just holding systems for ransom, but also stealing their victims’ data and holding that for ransom too. Basically, hackers pivoted to data. You can back up and restore your systems without having to pay a ransom, but there’s not much you can do to stop your data from being released — other than paying for it not to be. “Yesterday’s ransomware attacks were just encryption events,” Marta said. “Today you have double extortion, where it’s not just that your files and servers are encrypted, but also the threat actor has stolen a bunch of your sensitive data. And they’re saying if you don’t pay, we are going to dump that data on the dark web.” Bitcoin, as a global decentralized digital currency, made it much easier for criminals to collect ransom payments and harder for authorities to trace The other thing that happened, of course, was the pandemic. This opened up tons of new attack vectors for hackers — not just unsecured remote systems, but an exponential rise in phishing emails that took advantage of the circumstances and collective fear. The situation made people more likely to click on a link that would then infect their computers — and, from there, the rest of the system. “Normally, personnel are physically at the location and do not need remote access,” Prashant Anantharaman, a researcher at Dartmouth’s Institute for Security, Technology, and Society, told Recode. “With the push for remote work, we had to make many of these facilities internet-connected and remotely operable, increasing the attack surface.” It’s hard to know the full extent of ransomware attacks because the vast majority of them aren’t reported. But even before the Colonial Pipeline attack — which introduced many Americans to the concept of ransomware, or at least how it could personally affect them — happened, the FBI had formed its ransomware task force and the Institute for Security and Technology had created a ransomware task force of its own, with an April launch event that featured a keynote speech from Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas. The Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) has steadily rolled out ransomware guides and fact sheets for everyone from individuals to businesses that run critical infrastructure. What happens next Americans’ shock over the recent spate of attacks may not be so much that ransomware exists or that cyberattacks are a threat, but that even massive companies and large governments can’t or won’t take steps to prevent them from happening in the first place. And that’s a very difficult problem that will probably need several different solutions. “Americans should be concerned about this,” said Michael Hamilton, former chief information security officer (CISO) for the city of Seattle and current CISO of CI Security, which specializes in local government cybersecurity. “But I believe there is help on the way, and I think it’s going to come in a number of parts.” In some cases, the government can — and does — require that certain sectors meet cybersecurity standards. Pipeline cybersecurity, for instance, is overseen by the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), but it did very little to ensure compliance from the companies under its purview. This will supposedly change soon. Colonial was breached through an account that didn’t have multi-factor authentication, which is a basic cybersecurity step. (CEO Joseph Blount told a Senate committee that the password was “complicated.” Any cybersecurity expert — or even a humble data privacy reporter — will tell you passwords, even the most complicated, are not enough. Safe to say that Blount knows this now, too.) Andy Cross/MediaNews Group/The Denver Post/Getty Images JBS Foods was hit by a ransomware attack in June that briefly closed several plants. “Regulations are part of it, but it’s not going to solve the problem,” Ostrowski, of Check Point, said. “How you’re going to solve the problem is actually taking cybersecurity seriously. And I think a lot of verticals don’t take cybersecurity as seriously as they should. They look at cybersecurity as an expense versus as a critical piece of their business. And that’s how you’re going to solve it.” The recent law enforcement crackdown on ransomware — and the results — may go a long way to alleviate the threat. After all, if hackers think they might actually get caught or have their operations shut down or their ransom payments seized, they’ll think twice about who they attack. The FBI was able to break into a crypto wallet and seize much of the ransom Colonial paid, and the group responsible for the attack, DarkSide, claimed its servers had been taken down and that it was disbanding (you can decide if you want to take that claim at face value or not — it’s pretty common for hacker groups to “disband” and then resurface with a different name). This shows that even those sophisticated ransomware-as-a-service organizations aren’t completely immune from some consequences. And, Hamilton points out, there’s a big difference between being a cybercriminal and being labeled a terrorist by the US government. “We change the rhetoric, we let them know we’re coming after you in a much different way now,” he said. On the other hand, the aggressive response could make things worse if hackers are confident enough that they still won’t get caught. “If they’re being targeted now, they’re going to get much more bold on the targets that they’re going after,” Forrester’s Turner said. “It becomes about getting revenge.” New laws could also make it harder to pay and collect ransoms. If organizations are forbidden from paying ransom and cryptocurrencies become better regulated, that could go a long way to cutting off the money stream that is believed to fuel many of these attacks. Of course, both of these things are easier said than done. But it’s not impossible, either: Look at China’s crackdown on cryptocurrencies. Experts are split on whether ransom payments should be banned. One silver lining to all of this is that organizations that haven’t invested in cybersecurity will finally realize that they could be attacked and make cybersecurity a priority — and have better guidance and resources to do so. “I think with CISA finally on its way to getting the funding and resources, I think that there’s a very big opportunity to make security better for everybody,” Turner said. “At the end of the day, all of these folks are chasing the almighty dollar or the almighty bitcoin … And if it continues to be lucrative and there are no penalties or there’s no traceability to what some of these folks are doing, they’re going to continue to do it.” Correction, June 17, 10:45 am: The $20 billion global damage by 2021 was not predicted by AIG, as initially written, but cited by AIG from a CyberSecurity Ventures report.

  • The Putin summit may backfire on Biden
    by Alex Ward on June 15, 2021 at 7:30 pm

    Peace activists wearing masks of Russian President Vladimir Putin and US President Joe Biden pose with mock nuclear missiles on January 29, 2021, in Berlin. | John Macdougall/AFP/Getty Images The biggest risk Biden faces won’t come during the Putin summit. It’ll possibly come right afterward. President Joe Biden has made it clear that he’s meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday to do two things: to “decide where it’s in our mutual interest, in the interest of the world, to cooperate, and see if we can do that,” and in “the areas where we don’t agree, make it clear what the red lines are.” That may sound good, but experts warn Biden is setting himself up for potential failure. That’s because setting “red lines” that can’t be crossed (or else) with an unpredictable leader such as Putin is a risky move. Should Putin later cross one of Biden’s red lines — perhaps by allowing prominent dissident Alexei Navalny to die in prison, or by letting Russian cybercriminals (or his own spies) conduct another cyberattack on either the US government or our private sector — it would be an embarrassing slap in the face to the American president. “I’m worried about the humiliation afterward. It could be a real political hit to President Biden,” said Heather Conley, senior vice president for Europe, Eurasia, and the Arctic at the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank in Washington, DC. Even more dangerous, though, is the potential that Biden could feel pressured to respond forcefully, having all but promised to do so. Although such a move may be justified, it would foil Biden’s goal of better relations with Russia, leaving them to plumb new depths. All told, the Biden-Putin summit may offer more risk than reward. “Putin is predictably unpredictable” In multiple calls with Putin, Biden has stated he wants the US and Russia to enter “a stable and predictable relationship.” It’s unclear what, precisely, that means, but most experts interpret the line as the administration saying it wants Putin to stop targeting America and its Western allies. Over the last decade, Russia has, among other things, interfered in US and European elections, annexed Crimea, invaded part of Ukraine, foiled US military objectives in Syria, and potentially put bounties on American troops in Afghanistan. That’s why Biden’s main mission in Switzerland is to tell Putin to knock it off, and instead find ways to rebuild trust with the US. As an example of what that relationship could look like, the administration continuously points to how the two countries recently extended the New START treaty for five years. The problem is that it takes two people to build a “stable and predictable relationship,” and it doesn’t seem like Putin wants to do that. “Putin is predictably unpredictable,” said James Goldgeier, a senior visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington, DC. “He wants to keep the pressure on and provoke the West” in part to deflect from his failures at home, such as his inability to quash Russia’s coronavirus outbreak. What’s more, Putin knows Biden would rather focus on dealing with China than with Russia, which gives the autocrat all the more incentive to seek attention with bold actions. Putin achieved both of those objectives — annoying the West and remaining in the headlines — in April when he amassed tens of thousands of troops on Ukraine’s border, leading many to worry that Russia was planning a larger-scale invasion of the country. The same month, Biden offered to hold the summit with Putin; days later, Putin ordered those troops back home. Putin, then, seemingly bullied his way into a summit with Biden, giving him the platform he prestige he craves. The larger problem for Biden is that Putin’s playbook likely won’t change after Geneva — which opens Biden up to a world of problems. If Putin misbehaves after Geneva, Biden will have to retaliate Biden hasn’t said exactly what red lines he’ll give Putin during their meeting. But experts say they’re likely to include Nalvany’s death, another massive government hack, and future election interference. Take Navalny. For months, the Biden administration has made clear that the dissident’s death in Russian custody is a red line. “We have communicated to the Russian government that what happens to Mr. Navalny in their custody is their responsibility and they will be held accountable by the international community,” National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan told CNN in April. Analysts believe the US still maintains that position. Biden said during a press conference on Monday that Navalny’s death “would be a tragedy” and “do nothing but hurt [Putin’s] relationships with the rest of the world, in my view, and with me.” These kinds of public statements already leave Biden with little wiggle room should Navalny die. But if that were to happen after the US president warned Putin directly, to his face, that Navalny’s death was a red line, it would be viewed as a direct affront and challenge to the American leader. And Navalny’s death is an unfortunate possibility. Putin told NBC News just days ago that he couldn’t guarantee the activist’s safety. “Look, such decisions in this country are not made by the president,” he said. That’s rich coming from Putin, an authoritarian leader with a firm grip on his country’s security services. After all, US intelligence recently concluded that the near-fatal poisoning of Navalny in 2020 was orchestrated by a Russian intelligence agency, and analysts say such an operation wouldn’t have happened without the dictator’s explicit approval. All of this means Biden would have little choice but to respond to Navalny’s death in a major way, likely with harsh sanctions in concert with the US’s European allies. He made similar moves in April in response to the Kremlin’s election interference and government hacking. But therein lies the rub: Those penalties didn’t change Putin’s behavior, and experts say future ones probably won’t either. The retaliation would be justified, they note, but not necessarily effective. “There are only so many sanctions and expulsions you can do,” said Brookings’s Goldgeier. “They’re not really major tools at this point.” Biden, then, has backed himself into a corner. He’s headed to Geneva in hopes of convincing Putin to change his ways. But if he fails to persuade the Russian, as analysts expect, Wednesday’s summit could simply set up a worse future between the US and Russia. “Hope is not a plan,” said Goldgeier.

  • The fall of “King Bibi”
    by Zack Beauchamp on June 13, 2021 at 5:56 pm

    Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu arrives for a special session of the Knesset where Israeli lawmakers elected a new president. | Ronen Zvulun/AP How Netanyahu’s ouster could change Israel. Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu is Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, having held the job continuously since 2009. Now, finally, the reign of “King Bibi” — a moniker earned by his lengthy stay in office and authoritarian inclinations — has come to an end. On Sunday, Netanyahu’s opponents in the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, voted to replace him with a “change” coalition: a group of diverse parties from across the Israeli political spectrum united only by their interest in pushing Netanyahu out. The new prime minister is Naftali Bennett, from the far-right Yamina party — though Yair Lapid, from the centrist Yesh Atid party, will have a veto over his decisions. Netanyahu’s downfall is, more than anything else, the result of his own hubris. Over the past 12 years, Netanyahu has dominated Israeli politics. He’s not only successfully implemented a series of right-wing policies, such as entrenching Israel’s presence in the West Bank, but also consolidated a dangerous amount of power in his own hands. He is currently on trial for corruption charges stemming from, among other things, his attempt to buy off media outlets. Israeli politics has divided into pro- and anti-Bibi camps; the split is so narrow that Israel has been forced to hold four elections in two years, with none delivering a decisive verdict. It’s this paralysis, and the looming threat of Netanyahu’s anti-democratic behavior, that brought parties from across the political spectrum together to finally get beyond him. Bennett will serve as prime minister first, for two years, with Lapid taking over from him after that. It’s a power split that partly reflects the internal divisions inside the coalition, which depends on votes from eight different parties on the right, center, and left. One of the eight is Ra’am, an Islamist party and the first Arab party ever to join an Israeli governing coalition. Ronen Zvulun/AFP/Getty Images Naftali Bennett, center, seen during a special session of the Knesset on June 2. Calling this arrangement unstable is an understatement. The members of this coalition agree on almost nothing and thus will be unable to make major policy changes on most issues without collapsing. This is especially true in the conflict with the Palestinians, where the divides among the coalition parties are arguably most severe. A major event, like another flare-up in Hamas rocket fire, could bring them to each others’ throats — forcing yet another round of elections. But the fact that this new government exists at all speaks to the desire among many Israelis to move on from the Netanyahu era — a desire that led to a seismic change to Israeli politics. “Simply replacing Netanyahu is a huge deal,” said Michael Koplow, the policy director at the US-based Israel Policy Forum think tank. “And including an Arab party in a government is a huge deal, even if the coalition falls apart after six months.” How Netanyahu fell For 10 years, from 2009 to 2019, Netanyahu rode the long-running rightward drift of the Israeli electorate to victory — defeating his opponents on the center and left through a mix of deft political strategy and demagoguery. But things started to fall apart after Israel’s election in April 2019, when the current political crisis began. In that vote, Netanyahu’s Likud and allied right-wing parties won a majority of seats in the Knesset, seemingly setting them up for another extension of his historic premiership. But one party, the secular nationalist Yisrael Beiteinu, refused to join the government — citing a disagreement over special exemptions for mandatory military service given to ultra-Orthodox Jews. The inability of Netanyahu or his opponents to form a government then led to another election in September of that year, which was supposed to resolve the deadlock. By then, Israeli politics had come to revolve around one big thing: Netanyahu himself and his alleged abuse of power while in office. Bibi had served as prime minister once before, from 1996 to 1999. His defeat convinced him that he needed to make Israeli society more pliant to him personally — specifically, by bending the press to his will: “I need my own media,” as he put it at the time. Netanyahu’s opponents decided enough was enough: two years of chaos and elections needed to come to an end After his return to the top job, he seems to have tried to turn this proposal into action, allegedly attempting to trade political and regulatory favors for favorable coverage in two other outlets, the leading daily newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth (Latest News) and the popular online portal Walla! News. He seems to have succeeded with Walla, allegedly reaching a secret deal to approve a merger that its parent company wanted in exchange for slanting the news in his direction. The head of government attempting to suborn the independent media by handing out favors is not only undemocratic, but also quite possibly illegal. Israel’s attorney general, the conservative Avichai Mandelblit, announced in February 2019 that he would seek to indict the prime minister on a series of corruption and bribery-related charges — including ones that carried up to 10 years of jail time. By the time of the second election in September 2019, Netanyahu’s maneuvering to avoid prosecution had become increasingly dangerous to Israeli democracy. His allies in the Likud party had already proposed a law that would grant Netanyahu immunity from prosecution while in office, allowing him to get away with what looks like an assault on democratic institutions. The September election was inconclusive: Netanyahu did not have enough support to hold office, but the opposition was too internally divided to form any kind of government. A third election, held in March 2020, had similar results. The outcome was a temporary unity government, designed primarily to respond to the coronavirus outbreak while sidelining the issue of Bibi’s prosecution. Netanyahu blew up this fragile agreement in December, gambling that a fourth election would get him enough votes to form a more stable right-wing government. But he failed: That election, held in March, yielded the current Knesset. Amir Levy/Getty Images United Arab List party leader Mansour Abbas speaks to reporters after joining a coalition that forced Benjamin Netanyahu out of office on June 2. This time around, Netanyahu’s opponents decided enough was enough: Two years of chaos and elections needed to come to an end. Lapid, whose Yesh Atid party won the most votes of any in the anti-Netanyahu camp, made a series of agreements with parties across the political spectrum to form the new coalition. This included not only Netanyahu’s longstanding opponents on the left and center, but also right-wing leaders who had previously been either ministers in Netanyahu’s cabinet or members of his own party. The thing bringing these factions together is their shared belief that the chaos of the last two years must end. The only way to do that, they reasoned, is to take Netanyahu out of the top job. “Netanyahu will not be able to get a majority [in a fifth election] and then we will go to a sixth election,” Bennett, the leader of Yamina, said during coalition discussions. “The country can’t continue like that.” And now, as a result, Netanyahu has lost the top job — and will be forced to deal with his currently ongoing criminal trial without the power of the premiership. What will the “change coalition” actually change? Now, Bennett will serve as prime minister — a job he’ll keep for two years while Lapid serves as foreign minister. After two years, they will rotate, with Lapid taking the top position and Bennett in the cabinet. During the whole period, both of them will have veto power over policy — so even while Bennett is nominally Lapid’s boss, the latter will be able to block the former’s moves at will. This complex power-sharing agreement is necessary to address the disagreements between these two men in particular and the coalition parties in general. In most of the key policy areas facing Israel, this government will be unable to agree on significant changes. Take what’s arguably the country’s most important issue: the conflict with the Palestinians. On this, Bennett and Lapid have divergent views. Bennett supports annexing much of the West Bank and opposes the creation of a Palestinian state, while Lapid supports a two-state solution negotiated with the Palestinian leadership. The broader coalition is similarly divided, containing both hawkish factions like Yisrael Beiteinu and dovish ones like Meretz. Any major actions on the Palestinians, in either an aggressive or conciliatory direction, would divide the change coalition bitterly. The most likely result is that, as long as this government is in power, the conflict will basically remain stuck in its abysmal status quo. “If [the coalition] stays together, then it will necessarily mean inertia on the issues that affect Palestinians,” says Khaled Elgindy, director of the program on Palestine and Palestinian-Israeli affairs at the Middle East Institute. “Occupation, settlements, evictions, demolitions, [and the] Gaza blockade continue as they are.” This is the case on a series of key issues that divide the Israeli left and right, like whether Israel’s courts have gone too far in protecting individual rights. Such controversial topics will, in general, remain untouched by the change coalition — tinkered with at the edges, perhaps, but unaffected in any large way. “The limits on any contentious action are real. In some ways their mandate will be to just govern,” says Natan Sachs, director of the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution. Ronen Zvulun/AFP/Getty Images Israel’s newest prime minister, Naftali Bennett, left, and Yesh Atid party leader Yair Lapid seen speaking during a session of the Knesset on June 2. Nonetheless, there are some exceptions to this rule — areas where the new government could actually make a difference. First, there’s the area that prompted Yisrael Beiteinu to break with Netanyahu all the way back in April 2019: the relationship between synagogue and state. In the past, Israel’s ultra-Orthodox parties have been willing to throw their lot in with governments on both the left and the right so long as the government preserves their privileged status in Israeli law. But in the current standoff, the ultra-Orthodox parties chose to back Netanyahu — and now, as a result, are locked out of power. The right-wing parties in the current coalition are, by the standards of the Israeli right, relatively secular. Judy Maltz, a reporter at the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, suggests there are still constraints in this area: Both Yamina and Ra’am, the Islamist party, will block some moves toward a more secular society. But at the same time, there are some areas — including reductions in special funding for the ultra-Orthodox, support for public transit on Shabbat, and non-Orthodox prayer at the Western Wall — where policy change is possible. Second, there might also be some ability to improve the status of Palestinian citizens of Israel (also known as Arab Israelis). The very fact that one of this group’s leaders is in government for the first time — sharing power with right-wing politicians with a history of anti-Arab agitation — is a testament to the rising influence and growing legitimacy that Arab Israelis have in the Jewish-dominated political mainstream. To keep Ra’am happy, the new coalition will need to provide concrete accomplishments that its members can show to its long-marginalized constituents. The party’s leader, Mansour Abbas, has already demanded more funding for infrastructure in Arab communities and an end to building codes that disadvantage Arabs — but there’s much more the coalition could do. One of the top issues for Arab Israelis is a surge in Arab organized crime that has led to a murder epidemic; in 2019, 71 percent of Israeli murder victims were Arab, despite Palestinian citizens making up only 21 percent of the Israeli population. The Netanyahu government failed to adequately address this problem with police resources; perhaps, the new one will. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the change in government opens up prospects for political change. For 20 years, the political right has dominated Israeli politics. Right-wing dominance empowered Netanyahu to both deepen the occupation of the West Bank and assault democracy inside Israel’s borders — two trends that are closely related. Dethroning Netanyahu won’t put a stop to the occupation, nor will it entirely stop Israel’s slide away from democracy. But by ending Netanyahu’s chokehold on Israeli politics, it will create the possibilities for a move beyond the political status quo. Dahlia Scheindlin, an Israeli political strategist and fellow at the Century Foundation, puts the point well in a piece for the Guardian: Part of Netanyahu’s staying power has been the snowball effect of consolidating power. Voters cannot imagine anyone else governing, hence the oft-heard refrain “There’s no one else but him”. A new government would demonstrate that there is. If the rotation for prime minister goes as planned, from Bennett to Lapid, citizens will see that there are even two someone elses. That’s healthy for democracy. Of course, it’s also possible that things go the other way. Once Netanyahu is out of the picture, perhaps even in jail, his Likud party will be free to join with the right-wing members of the coalition and the religious parties in a far-right coalition. But that’s the nature of change: It’s unpredictable. Whether it ends up being for better or for worse in the long run is hard to say, but what’s clear is that some kind of change is finally coming to Israeli politics. “I’m not optimistic about Israel, ever,” says Hadas Aron, a professor at New York University who studies Israeli politics. “But I do think it’s not meaningless that someone else will be in government, that something else could at least have the potential to rise.”