Netanyahu Trial: Prosecution Says Witnesses' Phones Were Hacked With Warrant

State Prosecution asks court for an extension to complete the inquiry ■ Spyware firm NSO Group begins cooperating with Justice Ministry team

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Opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu in the Israeli Parliament in Jerusalem, last week.
Opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu in the Israeli Parliament in Jerusalem, last week. Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

Prosecutors said in response to claims that the police hacked witnesses' phones in one of the cases against then-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that all actions were done with a warrant, but asked on Sunday for more time to complete their inspection, meaning hearings will only resume next week.

"No actions were taken regarding individuals whom warrants weren't issued against," the prosecution team said in a statement to the Jerusalem District Court.

The defendants' attorney accused the prosecution of making vague claims, pointing out that they did not specify whether the appropriate orders were given before witnesses phones were tapped, adding that the law doesn't allow for the spyware's use anyways.

The prosecution didn't explain "who was surveilled in the case, what specific actions were taken, their scope, when they were carried out, or under which orders," the defense said.

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Prosecutors asked the court on Tuesday for an extension until Sunday to submit their findings. After submitting them on Sunday, they then requested another extension until Wednesday, which was granted.

At issue was the alleged hack of the phone of Shlomo Filber, a former director general of the Communications Ministry and a witness who turned state's evidence in the case. According to police sources, prosecutors will say that information from Filber's phone did not reach investigators and was not used in the probe.

Prosecutors Liat Ben Ari, left, Judith Tirosh and Amir Tabenkin in November. Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

In the case, Netanyahu is suspected of providing regulatory favors to telecom company Bezeq in return for positive coverage on the Walla website, which was owned by Bezeq.

Citing preliminary findings, Prosecutor Judith Tirosh has said the authorities did not use spyware in investigating Filber but simply collected information from his phone after obtaining a court order.

NSO logs

Meanwhile, the team examining the claims, headed by Deputy Attorney General Amit Merari, is expected to present additional findings to Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, Justice Minister Gideon Sa’ar and Public Security Minister Omer Bar-Lev. It will then be decided whether to establish a commission of inquiry or simply let the prosecutors continue their work.

According to the initial findings, with court approval, the police tried to surveil three of 26 people whose names were published last week in the financial daily Calcalist. According to the findings, the police successfully hacked one of the three targets.

The team expanded its work after Attorney General Gali Baharav-Miara brought in officials from the Shin Bet security service and the Mossad.

To confirm or disprove the claims against the police, cooperation is needed from NSO Group, the company that operates the Pegasus spyware at the center of the controversy.

According to police sources, NSO began cooperating with the team at the end of the week. The prosecution in Netanyahu's trial said on Sunday that the company granted Merari's team access to its "audit log," a database NSO says provides accurate information on phones infected by the spyware.

NSO has not commented on the matter, and police sources say the findings so far disprove the claims by Calcalist.

Last week, Netanyahu's lawyers asked that no further testimony be heard from witnesses in the corruption cases against him until the claims about the police's alleged use of Pegasus had been clarified.

The judges rejected the request and allowed testimony by the former legal adviser to the Communications Ministry, Dana Neufeld. The defense said media reports on the matter would at least delay the hearings.

According to the defense, evidence collected from the witnesses' phones can only be relevant, so the prosecution should provide it to the defense.

“It's impossible to ignore what was published,” Jacques Chen, the attorney for defendant Shaul Elovitch, Bezeq's former controlling shareholder, said last week. “If all the reports so far weren’t enough, it turns out that a pandemic has spread regarding illegal actions in this investigation. … We believe there is no choice but to provide time to examine these things seriously and thoroughly.”

According to Calcalist, the police used spyware to hack the phones of several witnesses in Netanyahu's trial, as well as the phone of another defendant in the case, Iris Elovitch, Shaul Elovitch’s wife.

According to the paper, the police also hacked the phones of a raft of officials at the time: Communications Ministry Director General Avi Berger, Walla editor-in-chief Aviram Elad, Walla CEO Ilan Yeshua, and Bezeq CEO Stella Handler.

Reuters contributed to this report.

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