Analysis |

Pegasus Scandal Is a Massive Can of Worms About to Erupt All Over Israel’s Elites

Israel's newly ordered commission of inquiry could damage a lot of high-profile careers and foreign relations, and the man with all of the answers is ex-police chief Roni Alsheich

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
The Pegasus spyware sold by Israel’s NSO, or Cytrox's Predator, can be used by governments to track and monitor their own citizens, without cause, almost invisibly and with deniability, if not impunity
Pegasus spyware sold by Israel’s NSO, or Cytrox's Predator, can be used by governments to track and monitor their own citizens, without cause, almost invisibly and with deniability, if not impunityCredit: Artwork: Anastasia Shub. Photos: Sebastian Scheiner, AP / Andrei Minsk / Shutterstock
Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

On Monday morning in Jerusalem District Court, lawyers representing the defendants in Benjamin Netanyahu’s corruption case demanded that the judges suspend the hearings. This came after the latest in a series of bombshell reports in the Calcalist business daily that the police had used NSO’s Pegasus spyware in multiple cases – including against figures close to Netanyahu, among them key witnesses at the trial.

Initially, the judges accepted the prosecution’s claim that they were not aware of any illegal surveillance being used against witnesses and decided to continue with the trial. However, they subsequently decided to suspend Monday's hearing, giving the State Prosecutor's Office until Tuesday afternoon to respond to the allegations.

This is just one of the cans of worms that have been opened by the reports into the use of Pegasus against Israeli civilians.

Any defense lawyer currently involved in a criminal case will now be looking very closely at the evidence against their client, hoping to find proof that it was obtained using the Pegasus spyware that allows users to access data, and much more, on hacked cellphones. We’re about to see a slew of cases in which they demand their clients be exonerated because of this.

Also Monday morning, Public Security Minister Omer Bar-Lev announced the formation of a commission of inquiry into the police use of Pegasus after both he and Israel Police commissioner Kobi Shabtai had called for an external investigation into the matter. This was a major about-face from earlier statements when the series of Calcalist reports began two weeks ago, when both men denied any wrongdoing.

But where should such an investigation even start?

That depends on who you’re listening to in the Israeli media. Netanyahu’s proxies are focused on only one thing: that the police acted illegally in their “witch hunt” of the former prime minister, and therefore all of the evidence needs to be thrown out and the charges against Netanyahu dismissed.

Then-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and then-Police chief Roni Alsheich at a ceremony in Kfar Sava in 2017.Credit: Gil Eliahu

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And then there’s the other side – Netanyahu’s critics – who are accusing him of being the original source of corruption within the police. They point to a specific event that took place six years ago, just a few minutes’ walk from the courthouse in Jerusalem.

On December 3, 2015, Shin Bet security service deputy chief Roni Alsheich was appointed new police commissioner at the national police headquarters in northeastern Jerusalem. Officially, it’s the public security minister who appoints the commissioner. However, Alsheich had been the idea of Netanyahu, who as prime minister is also directly in charge of the Shin Bet.

Netanyahu was the main speaker at the appointment ceremony: “I believe you will do a great job in ... cybertechnology, which is becoming an important aspect in every action of the state and every action against the state,” the then-premier told him. “There is the need for reform that takes into account all these factors. … I expect, Roni, that you will use these technologies … also for policing, also for the daily protection of civilians and for law enforcement.”

Netanyahu also called for “maintaining the optimal balance between the need to safeguard individual rights and keeping the public safe.”

Alsheich is the man who brought in “weapons-grade” surveillance technology from the intelligence community to the moribund police force. With Netanyahu’s blessing.

Netanyahu is also the pioneer of “Pegasus diplomacy,” using the cyberoffense tool developed by the NSO Group as a sweetener for all manner of diplomatic and security agreements with foreign leaders – ranging from Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Pegasus has been used by many governments worldwide to track political rivals, activists and journalists. Will the new commission of inquiry investigate any of these dealings? It’s highly unlikely.

The Bennett-Lapid government may want to blame Netanyahu for any wrongdoing. However, unlike him, the leaders he did business with are still in power, and the government has no desire to harm relations with them.

Any investigation will almost certainly be limited to the domestic use of Pegasus. Not all domestic use, though, because Pegasus and similar technologies were being used by the Shin Bet and other parts of the Israeli intelligence community long before they reached the police – against Palestinian targets and other perceived enemies of Israel. None of this is likely to be investigated.

And even if the investigation focuses only on the police use of spyware against Israeli targets, it’s not just Alsheich and Netanyahu who stand to be implicated (in Netanyahu’s case, he can perhaps also gain if this affects the permissibility of evidence in his case).

Members of this current government also have ties with the NSO Group, starting with Prime Minister Naftali Bennett: 18 months ago, when he was defense minister, he tried to get the government to use NSO to track potential carriers and spreaders of COVID-19. Furthermore, Bennett’s close ally, Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked, is a close personal friend of NSO’s former president, Shiri Dolev.

NSO’s executives are aware of all this and are presumably not above using the knowledge they have to defend themselves, and if necessary bring others down with them.

The same is true of Alsheich, the man who used Pegasus both in the Shin Bet and the police, and has so far remained silent. He knows more than anyone how it was used, who gave the orders, who the targets were and who saw the materials. And he has forgotten nothing.

This investigation has the potential to rock Israel’s political class, the law enforcement establishment, the intelligence community and Israel’s foreign relations. As a result, it is unlikely to go very far.

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