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How Israel's Iran Hacking Scandal Could Ensure Netanyahu's Reelection

From speculation over who hacked the Kahol Lavan leader’s private phone to who is spreading rumors about its contents, six key questions that could determine who wins next month’s election

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
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FILE PHOTO: Benny Gantz and Benjamin Netanyahu in 2012.
FILE PHOTO: Benny Gantz and Benjamin Netanyahu in 2012. Credit: Nir Kafri
Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

From the moment Channel 12 political analyst Amit Segal broke the story Thursday night that the Shin Bet security service had recently informed Kahol Lavan leader and election front-runner Benny Gantz that his personal smartphone had been hacked, it was clear this could be a moment that will define this election campaign.

Lurid rumors regarding what was on the phone immediately began to circulate, and even the rockets fired from Gaza toward Tel Aviv failed to push the story off the agenda.

On Friday afternoon, Kahol Lavan was forced to issue a statement confirming that the phone had indeed been hacked, but denying the rumors about what was on the phone, and Gantz convened an emergency press conference.

It is unclear where this story will lead, but it has the potential to derail Gantz’s meteoric rise. Here are the main issues.

Is the Gantz campaign in trouble?

Holding a live press conference at 4:30 P.M. on a Friday afternoon when the country is shutting down, moments before Shabbat begins, is not something a mainstream Israeli politician ever does. Unless they are under serious pressure.

The way Kahol Lavan announced the presser at the last moment, with the terrible optics of him standing alone on the Gaza border, a barbed wire fence as his backdrop — coupled with his angry tone — won’t have helped.

There were other bad signs. Until now, in his public appearances Gantz has usually been flanked by his three senior partners: Yair Lapid and the two other ex-IDF chiefs of staff, Gabi Ashkenazi and Moshe Ya’alon. Their absence from the press conference was conspicuous.

Until now, Kahol Lavan’s campaign has been well run and disciplined. But there was a glaring discrepancy between the party’s statement, put out on Twitter half an hour before the event, and what Gantz actually said.

The statement said “there was no security information, no embarrassing videos” on the hacked phone and Gantz “was never a target of blackmail.” In the press conference, Gantz only denied security information being on the phone and refused to go into any personal details.

He had every right to insist his private life was off-limits, but to do so after the denial from the party, which was put out on his own Twitter account, shows that the campaign is rattled. (There was also the small matter of the tweet being deleted after a couple of minutes and then re-posted along with the words “Kahol Lavan statement.”)

Who hacked Gantz’s phone?

The Shin Bet have told Gantz his phone was hacked by “Iranians.” This is an entirely plausible scenario.

A number of former senior figures in Israel’s defense establishment have been targeted by Iranian hackers in recent years, some having their smartphones and computers hacked. But in the murky world of cyberespionage, it is also possible that other players with an interest in the former army chief and up-and-coming Israeli politician could have done so too, masquerading behind an “Iranian signature.” As to who they may be — well, the list is pretty long.

Does Gantz’s private life matter to his political prospects?

Israel’s combative press have no fear of the most powerful of politicians. But when it comes to their sex lives, they have always been Victorian: Who a politician is (or isn’t) screwing is no one’s business. The only cases the media will delve into are those where there is a criminal element of assault involved — such as in the cases of ex-President Moshe Katsav and former minister Haim Ramon.

Last month, when a woman came forward and claimed that Gantz had exposed himself to her back in high school, she was interviewed by some of the main news outlets but her story didn’t stand up. The other instance in which the media will get involved is if a politician opens the door to their own bedroom — as Benjamin Netanyahu did in January 1993 when he went on television to say he had been having an affair and that “criminal elements” were blackmailing him.

Gantz can rest assured that unless there was anything criminal in his conduct, the Israeli media will not delve into his private life.

But we are no longer living in an era where the mainstream media is the only player that can expose intimate matters. Anything regarding a politician’s private life can now find itself onto the web or social media, and there is no way of filtering or blocking that.

Should that happen, the media will have a role in trying to verify whether the materials are real or fake, and who could have leaked them.

As far as they would affect a political candidate’s prospects, it is unlikely that Israeli voters would punish any politician just for, say, having an affair. But being careless enough for visual details to fall into hostile hands is another matter altogether.

Should Gantz be blamed for having his phone hacked?

For a man of Gantz’s security experience to have his personal phone compromised is an embarrassment, but he is hardly the first senior political figure to have fallen prey to hackers. U.S. Gen. John Kelly (a former head of the Department of Homeland Security) had his phone hacked in 2017 while he was White House chief of staff.

In Gantz’s defense, unlike Kelly he was a private citizen when the hacking took place and had not been in any official position for four years (since his term as IDF chief of staff ended early in 2015).

It is extremely unlikely there was any sensitive material — from a security aspect, at least — on his phone, and it can be assumed he would have been aware enough not to discuss such matters on a private phone.

For over a decade now, senior defense officials in Israel have been issued with “operational” phones with a high level of security, and then used regular phones for their own private matters. These are kept out of operationally sensitive areas while they go about their jobs.

The main issue for Gantz now is that the timing of the news, in the crucial last weeks of the campaign before Election Day on April 9, will help opponents who have been trying to build up an image of Gantz as laid-back and not entirely serious or competent.

He didn’t get to the IDF’s top job through incompetence, but the image is still a damaging one.

Where is Netanyahu in all of this?

In its statement Friday, Kahol Lavan blamed “people close to the prime minister” for briefing journalists on the rumors. Gantz said in the press conference he is “in a fight for Israel’s democracy” and “is facing people with very low ethics.” Kahol Lavan co-leader Yair Lapid tweeted that “Bibi’s use of sensitive security material to try to smear Benny Gantz proves he is scared of him.”

But is there any proof of active involvement by Netanyahu and his people?

In private conversations, Netanyahu’s proxies in the media and his cronies are naturally delighted about the developments. But that’s to be expected and doesn’t mean Netanyahu orchestrated either the leak or the rumors. His office said in a statement that Shin Bet chief Nadav Argaman had not informed Netanyahu that Gantz’s phone had been hacked. That is interesting, since the Shin Bet answers directly to the prime minister.

Also, assuming the statement is factual, it didn’t say Netanyahu was not aware of the details from another source. Mossad head Yossi Cohen also answers to the prime minster, was Netanyahu’s previous national security adviser and is very close to him. The National Cyber Directorate is a unit in the Prime Minister’s Office. It’s hard to believe Netanyahu wasn’t informed, yet that still doesn’t mean he was the source of the leak.

On the other hand, whoever the source of the leak and stirred up the rumors was, Netanyahu is the main beneficiary.

Does this scandal have legs?

If nothing new comes out over the weekend, the hacking story may well die down quickly. With 25 days to go until the election, there will be plenty of other fodder for the media.

But the main concern now is not Sunday’s headlines. Whether or not there was something compromising on Gantz’s phone that is now in the hands of whoever, the stage has been set for an online information dump on the eve of the election.

After the attempts to hack the U.S. and French presidential elections, and the Brexit referendum, it is only natural for a similar development to take place in Israel.

Even if the information turns out to be false and not from Gantz’s phone, it will hang over his head. Any rumor will spread like wildfire, online and through closed WhatsApp groups. They may be easy to disprove, but will cause damage first and serve as a constant distraction and embarrassment to the Gantz camp when they are up against the master campaigner, Netanyahu.

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