Citing common threat from Iran, Lapid pledges cyberdefense help to Albania

PM Edi Ram, on three-day visit, is eager to bolster his country’s protection after Tehran blamed for online attacks

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

Prime Minister Yair Lapid and Albanian counterpart Edi Rama alongside their teams at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem. (Haim Zach/GPO)
Prime Minister Yair Lapid and Albanian counterpart Edi Rama alongside their teams at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem. (Haim Zach/GPO)

Prime Minister Yair Lapid on Sunday offered aid to his Albanian counterpart, Edi Rama, who is in Israel to seek protection from Iranian cyberattacks, according to an Israeli readout of a meeting between the two men.

Tirana cut diplomatic ties with the Islamic Republic in September after a series of cyberattacks it attributes to Iran.

“Iran represents a joint threat for Israel and Albania,” said Lapid at the meeting, which took place in the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem. “We saw this in the recent Iranian cyberattacks against Albania. Israel will assist in any way in the effort against Iran. We see this as a national interest and a historical responsibility.”

After the visit, the next stage will be for the professional echelons in both countries to hold online discussions about cybersecurity.

The two leaders also discussed expanding tourism and trade, as well as resuming direct flights between the countries.

The war in Ukraine did not come up in the meeting.

Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama (C) lands in Israel for a three-day visit, on October 23, 2022. (Shlomi Amsalem/ GPO)

Rama arrived in Israel earlier Sunday for a three-day visit. The Albanian leader will also meet with President Isaac Herzog, Knesset Speaker Mickey Levy, and Finance Minister Avigdor Liberman, in addition to the head of Israel’s National Cyber Directorate, Gaby Portnoy.

Portnoy will present a briefing on Israel’s cyber defense capabilities.

In September, Israel offered cyber-defense assistance to Albania, days after the Balkan state severed its diplomatic ties with Iran, citing accusations that the Islamic Republic had carried out cyberattacks against the country in July.

“This isn’t the first time they’ve been threatened by Iran, and their prime minister said, I’m not ready to continue like this,” Galit Peleg, Israel’s ambassador to Albania, told The Times of Israel.

Rama’s delegation includes Albania’s cyber director and foreign, youth, and agriculture ministers, as well as the national security adviser and chief spokesperson.

Close ties with Albania are important for Israel in international forums. Though Tirana is years away from joining the EU, it currently sits on the UN Security Council.

Israeli Ambassador in Albania Noah Gal Gendler speaks during the inauguration of a Holocaust memorial in Tirana, on July 9, 2020. (Xhulio Hajdari /Tirana City Hall via AP)

“Three weeks ago, the 57 states of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation met on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly. A resolution condemning Israel came out, and the Albanian ambassador said, this doesn’t represent us,” explained Peleg. “And he got up and left.”

Behind the scenes, the visit came together with the help of Kazakh-Israeli billionaire Alexander Machkevitch, who met Rama when he helped resettle 400 Afghan refugees in Albania last year.

“I spoke with business people, government officials, everybody who has any interest in Albania,” he told The Times of Israel.

Mashkevitch is throwing an event Monday night at Jerusalem’s Waldorf Astoria Hotel to highlight Albania’s rescue of Jews during the Holocaust, and to promote the bilateral relationship. “Most Israelis don’t know that Albania is extremely loyal to Jewish people in Albania,” he said.

Following the collapse of its Communist government in the early 1990s, Albania — a majority-Muslim country — has transformed into a steadfast ally of the United States and the West, officially joining NATO in 2009.

Albania blamed Iran for a July 15 cyberattack that temporarily shut down numerous Albanian government digital services and websites. Rama said an investigation determined that the July cyberattack was not carried out by individuals or independent groups, calling it a “state aggression.”

The two countries have been bitter foes for years, since the Balkan state began hosting members of the opposition People’s Mujahideen of Iran, or Mujahedeen-e-Khalq (MEK), on its soil.

Iran rejected the accusation that it was behind the cyberattack as “baseless” and called Albania’s decision to sever diplomatic ties “an ill-considered and shortsighted action.”

“Iran as one of the target countries of cyberattacks on its critical infrastructure rejects and condemns any use of cyberspace as a tool to attack the critical infrastructure of other countries,” its foreign ministry said.

The Biden administration said it supported the move by Albania.

Israel and Iran have, for several years, been involved in a largely clandestine cyberwar that occasionally bubbles to the surface. Israeli officials have accused Iran of attempting to hack Israel’s water system in 2020.

Agencies contributed to this report. 

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