In the three consecutive turbulent, violent election campaigns in which Benjamin Netanyahu and Benny Gantz ran against each other for prime minister, one story stood out whose raw material could serve as the basis for a spy novel or movie. The shock waves of the story – some elements of which cannot yet be published due to censorship restrictions – are still being felt in the corridors of power. It’s one of the reasons for the tension and suspiciousness between the prime minister, the defense minister and the heads of the secret services.
In March 2019, Channel 12 reporter Amit Segal revealed that shortly before Gantz officially entered politics, he was summoned for a meeting with senior officials of the Shin Bet security service. The service’s director, Nadav Argaman, informed him that his mobile phone had been hacked and that its contents were in Iran’s hands.
The Iranian hack became a major weapon in the prime minister’s campaign; Netanyahu stated that he had not known about it until the story broke. “It is untenable for a prime minister of Israel to be vulnerable to blackmail by Iran,” Netanyahu said on the eve of the March election. “It is untenable for a situation to exist in which someone will pressure him.”
Throughout the election campaign, the prime minister and his confidants sought to disseminate in the media the sensitive personal content that had supposedly leaked. Netanyahu displayed impressive expertise about the contents of the mobile in the possession of Gantz, who is today the defense minister in his government and is slated to succeed him as premier next year.
Haaretz has learned that on several occasions the prime minister voiced his anger over the fact that Argaman had not briefed him about the hack and for not revealing its details to the public, even though the material that found its way to the Iranians bears salient potential for blackmail, according to Netanyahu. “He is safeguarding Gantz,” he said furiously in closed conversations.
The impression formed by Netanyahu’s interlocutors was that the Shin Bet director was not necessarily motivated by considerations of state but was trying to bring about Netanyahu’s replacement. Echoes of these allegations reached Argaman, and he rejected them vehemently.
After the hack became public knowledge, Gantz declared that he was not subject to blackmail and that there was no security material on his mobile. “The telephone is not the story, it’s prying that I don’t intend to comment on,” he said. He also maintained to his political partners in the “cockpit,” as the Kahol Lavan leadership quartet was known, that the hack did not pose a threat to him or to his candidacy for the premiership.
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Nevertheless, people who worked with him formed the impression that he was very disturbed about the possibility that personal content from the phone would become public. “That was the story that stressed him in all the election campaigns,” a politician who knows Gantz well told Haaretz.
If Netanyahu was disappointed in Argaman, Gantz accused Mossad chief Yossi Cohen of cooperating with the prime minister. A person close to Gantz also conveyed a message in that spirit to Cohen, who maintained in response that he was not involved in transmitting any information about Gantz to his rivals.
This week, Netanyahu extended the term of office of the Mossad head, which was due to end next January, by half a year, without soliciting Gantz’s opinion.
Proof that the episode of the Iranian hack is not moribund is shown by the following: when Naftali Bennett served as defense minister in the transition government, he was briefed by security officials about the Iranian hack of Gantz’s phone and its implications. Bennett declined to comment on this.
The tension between Netanyahu and Argaman over the Gantz affair is one more expression of the basic suspiciousness harbored by the prime minister about the heads of state organizations, suspiciousness that became more extreme as he was increasingly entangled in criminal matters.
In the meantime, other differences have arisen between the two, the latest one over Argaman’s opposition to having the Shin Bet track the phones of citizens to locate people infected with the coronavirus. The Shin Bet director’s term of office is due to end in May 2021.
After the hack of Gantz’s phone was revealed publicly, politicians concocted various conspiracy theories, some of them bizarre, in connection with it. Former prime minister Ehud Barak said he doubted that the Iranians were behind the hack, and suggested that “every citizen should make their own assessment of who leaked it and why he leaked it.”
Former Labor MK Erel Margalit wrote: “Within a few days, information will start to come out about Gantz, which the Iranians are supposedly putting out through a third party. And then Netanyahu’s campaign will ‘plug into’ that information. It was done to Hillary Clinton, it was done in Brexit, it was done to Macron in France.”