Analysis |

Israelis Didn’t Care About NSO and Pegasus – Until This Scandal

A series of reports into how the Israeli police spied on their own citizens has finally grabbed everyone’s attention – and nowhere more so than among Benjamin Netanyahu’s loyal followers

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
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Illustration.Credit: Reuven Castro/AP / AMIR COHEN/Reuters / JOEL SAGET/ AFP
Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

Israel is having its Edward Snowden moment. Not in the sense that an employee of its intelligence community has defected to Russia while leaking hundreds of thousands of top-secret files to the media. But in the sense that, for the first time, many Israelis are suddenly aware of the fact that their private communications and the content of their digital devices can be accessed at any moment by Israel’s law enforcement agencies, operating with seemingly little legal oversight.

This may sound a bit strange. After all, some Israeli news organizations, in particular Haaretz, have been reporting for years on the intrusive capabilities developed by Israeli cybertech companies and how they are closely related to the government. Indeed, for the past seven months, Haaretz has been a partner in the Pegasus Project – a series of global investigations revealing how the powerful Pegasus spyware developed by Israel’s NSO Group has been used by governments around the world to snoop on lawyers, political activists, reporters and perhaps even the president of France.

But none of this caused much of a stir in Israel. Those whose privacy was violated were, after all, foreigners. The common response was that if Israel gained from selling its cyberware abroad, then great.

The public mood quickly began to change two weeks ago, which is when Calcalist reporter Tomer Ganon began publishing a series of articles detailing how the Israel Police had also used Pegasus against Israeli citizens. These targets ranged from the organizers of the “Balfour protests” against then-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, to organized crime gangs, to somebody close to an unspecified political figure.

The police response has evolved over time from blanket denials to admissions that there were cases in which Pegasus was used – but only with a judge’s consent – to accepting that there were cases in which, “by mistake,” they had overstepped their remit.

Former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks to right-wing opposition party members at Israel's parliament, in Jerusalem in June.Credit: Maya Alleruzzo /AP

A lot remains unclear in the business daily’s reports, including the specific targets and the very vague sourcing. But it has been enough to spark a feeding frenzy among the rest of the Israeli media. Finally, Pegasus is deemed worthy of main headlines. It’s being used against us.

And that’s not the only thing to have changed in recent weeks.

The moment Ganon reported that Pegasus had been used in an investigation involving a politician, the media’s pro-Netanyahu wing began speculating – and very swiftly insisting – that the police had used Pegasus in one of his corruption cases.

As prime minister, Netanyahu famously never owned his own cellphone. His close aides, however, were another matter – especially the three who are now serving as state’s witnesses against him in his ongoing trial. All of a sudden, Netanyahu’s legions on social media are embracing the campaign for privacy and calling to defund the police – or at least, the parts of it that investigate corruption.

The catalyst for this were reports that Shlomo Filber, one of the state’s witnesses against Netanyahu, was among those whose cellphones were “hacked” by the police. Just by coincidence, as the story broke, Filber was about to take the stand in Jerusalem District Court.

Netanyahu appointed him director general of the Communications Ministry in 2015, and he is supposed to give key evidence on the charges of bribery allegedly committed by his old boss in the “Bezeq case” (aka Case 4000). Netanyahu’s lawyers are already asking the court for Filber’s testimony to be postponed, while his media proxies are demanding that the trial be abandoned altogether.

So far, none of this is backed up by any evidence. According to the latest reporting in Haaretz, the contents of Filber’s phone were indeed accessed – but not by the police. It was for a separate investigation being conducted by the Israel Securities Authority (that’s “securities” as in stocks and shares, not state security), where Netanyahu was not the target and which took place before Case 4000 began.

Former Police Commissioner Roni Alsheich speaks to the commission of inquiry into the Mount Meron scandal.Credit: Emil Salman

Furthermore, his phone wasn’t hacked by Pegasus. Instead, it was accessed by hardware (not spyware), with a judge’s approval and with Filber’s full knowledge.

Who knows, perhaps the government inquiry into police surveillance, which was ordered by outgoing Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit, may discover actual wrongdoing in the Netanyahu investigations. For now, though, that doesn’t seem to be the case. Other Israelis were almost certainly victims of privacy breaches by the police, but, as far as we know, Netanyahu and his inner circle were not.

(On Monday, February 7, a day after this article was originally published, Calcalist reported that Netanyahu's aides were among dozens of senior officials whose phoned were hacked by the police using Pegasus.)

Beyond the empty rhetoric, there’s some breathtaking hypocrisy about the whole Bibi-ist spin on this case. After all, the genius idea to appoint a senior spy chief from the Shin Bet security service – an organization that uses tools such as Pegasus against Palestinians on a daily basis – as national police commissioner was Netanyahu’s.

Back in 2015, overzealous surveillance was the least of the Israel Police’s concerns. Every internal candidate for the commissioner’s job had been shot down amid a welter of allegations of corruption and sexual harassment. Senior officers from the Israel Defense Forces didn’t want to dirty themselves with police work. Desperate to get someone to lead the organization out of its crisis, Netanyahu offered the job to Roni Alsheich, at the time the anonymous deputy chief of the Shin Bet.

Former Mossad head Yossi Cohen with former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in May. Credit: עמוס בן גרשום/ לע

From Netanyahu’s perspective, Alsheich may have appeared the dream candidate. The premier perhaps assumed that, coming from the Shin Bet, Alsheich would be focused on counterterrorism and much less on any potential political corruption investigations. Plus, he was religious and a former settler – the kind of credentials Netanyahu usually likes in candidates for senior positions, believing that those with such backgrounds will cause him less trouble.

The problem was that Alsheich didn’t want the job either. He was devoted to his Shin Bet career and was a leading candidate to become service chief within a few years. So Netanyahu promised him that once his term as commissioner was over, he would automatically be appointed to head the intelligence agency.

Alsheich accepted, but the next morning called Netanyahu. “I’m taking the police job,” he told the prime minister, “but I don’t want you to make me any promises about my next appointment. We’ll see when the time comes.”

Why did Alsheich prefer not to have Netanyahu commit? Was it just his renowned interrogator’s instinct? Did he discover anything overnight that led him to believe his police officers would soon be investigating Netanyahu’s affairs? (According to official police accounts of the Netanyahu investigation, the suspicious information only began to arrive in 2016.) Alsheich has never fully explained himself.

Very soon, though, Netanyahu came to regret his “dream” appointment. Alsheich’s term was over in three years – without the customary fourth year added on by the cabinet – and there was no talk of him becoming Shin Bet chief after that.

Now, Netanyahu’s mouthpieces are accusing Alsheich of being the one who brought Pegasus and the rest of that dark magic into the police force. Alsheich has yet to respond, though it could well be the case.

It’s easy, however, to imagine an alternative scenario in which Alsheich performed his role exactly as Netanyahu expected, blocking any political corruption probes from moving forward and instead using resources like Pegasus to crack down on political dissent.

If Alsheich had done this, he would doubtless have been rewarded with the Shin Bet post in 2019, becoming the only man to have led both internal security organizations and probably the most powerful secret policeman in Israeli history – or at least since Isser Harel commanded both the Shin Bet and Mossad in the 1950s.

Just as the last Mossad chief, Yossi Cohen, put his agency at Netanyahu’s political disposal for years, that is what the prime minister expected from Alsheich with the police and then the Shin Bet. He would have become an Israeli J. Edgar Hoover.

Alsheich may have brought Pegasus and other Shin Bet tools into the police, and it seems that their use wasn’t always well supervised. However, he didn’t allow the police to become the personal tool of the prime minister, and instead zealously investigated the alleged corruption of the man who appointed him and would have given him the keys to the secret kingdom.

There are valid reasons to criticize the police use of spyware against Israeli citizens during his time as commissioner, but Netanyahu isn’t exactly the right person to lead such a campaign.

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