Analysis |

Netanyahu Used NSO's Pegasus for Diplomacy. Now He Blames It for His Downfall

Netanyahu rode Pegasus all the way to the Abraham Accords, his most important contribution to Israeli foreign policy. Now he believes that the NSO software cost him his power

Aluf Benn
Aluf Benn
Netanyahu on the phone
Netanyahu on the phoneCredit: Moshe Milner / GPO
Aluf Benn
Aluf Benn

The hero of this season’s “The life and adventures of Benjamin Netanyahu” is Pegasus, the spyware that can turn any cellphone into a wellspring of information about its owner. The story began when Netanyahu, the prime minister at the time, was employed as the No. 1 salesman of the spyware developer NSO Group, paving the way for sales in the Persian Gulf and enjoying the fruits on the political and defense fronts, including stronger ties with Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain. Netanyahu rode Pegasus all the way to the Abraham Accords, his most important contribution to Israeli foreign policy.

From the Abraham Accords signing ceremony at the White House, the setting of our series shifts to the offices in Lod of Israel Police unit Lahav 433 – sometimes dubbed “Israel’s FBI” – and the force’s signals intelligence unit, which drew little public interest before Calcalist ran its exposé, tying the story back to NSO. If Netanyahu himself were to write the script, this would be his story: The police, led by then-chief Roni Alsheich, gained advanced spying capabilities that until then had been the sole province of the intelligence and security services. Alsheich didn’t tell the prime minister that the police had joined the global cyberespionage club, and let him believe the force’s capabilities were stuck somewhere in the last century.

In Netanyahu’s telling, Alsheich marked him as a target – even if the motives aren’t clear – and the police’s most elite units were sent on a fishing and hunting expedition in order to entrap him in Case 4000. The police admitted to activating spyware (it didn’t say which) on the phone of state’s witness Shlomo Filber; in Netanyahu’s script, Pegasus or a similar program was used to hack the phones of state’s witness Nir Hefetz, Netanyahu’s son Yair Netanyahu, Case 4000 co-defendants Shaul and Iris Elovitch and their lawyers.

Otherwise, how else would the investigators have known that Yair visited the apartment of the billionaire Australian businessman and Netanyahu supporter James Packer, or the twists and turns of Hefetz’s personal life? These are serious claims that warrant investigation, and the frequent changes in the police’s response to reports on the affair do not increase trust in the institution. They seem more like sloppy attempts at whitewashing by criminals in blue.

There is no doubt that Netanyahu has done an impressive media circuit: Calcalist’s initial reports pointed to the leaders of the protest movement against the then-prime minister as the targets of police surveillance. After the anti-Bibi camp called for a thorough investigation into police spying, the story turned into one about the monitoring of Netanyahu allies. Netanyahu now expects his opponents to support the investigation with the same enthusiasm, even if its results may help his legal cases, at least in the public arena.

Netanyahu’s script has Trumpian tones. Figures in his Likud party determined – it’s not clear how – that the investigations against Netanyahu and his indictment shortly before the election cost them two Knesset seats. That is, it led to Naftali Bennett replacing Netanyahu as premier.

What an irony: The man who leveraged Pegasus for foreign-policy gains now believes he lost his domestic power on account of the spyware. In the latest narrative twist, he hopes that the plot’s exposure can turn the legal tide in his favor, turn his investigators into the perpetrators of illegal surveillance – which carries a punishment of five years in prison – and emerge from the story with his feathers unruffled.

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