Analysis

Gantz Phone-hacking Affair: 9 Questions That Must Be Answered

Is Netanyahu really worried about (former) defense officials being hacked, or is he only interested in reaping political capital?

Benny Gantz sits in his car after speaking to the media in Kibbutz Nir-Am, Israel, March 15, 2019.
\ AMIR COHEN/ REUTERS

The hacking of a smartphone belonging to Benny Gantz, the Kahol Lavan ticket’s prime ministerial candidate, grabbed headlines all weekend once it became clear that the escalation in the Gaza Strip had ended. These two incidents even intersected for a moment when Gantz, during a brief meeting with journalists organized by his party near the Gaza border, was asked questions about the kind of information he kept on his phone.

This clearly wasn’t an easy meeting for the former chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces. He showed up to attack Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over the security situation in the south, but it was clear to everyone that the media was mainly interested in his hacked phone.

>> Explained: How Iran hacking scandal could end Gantz's chance to be Israel's next leader ■ Analysis: To defeat Gantz, Netanyahu instructs his party to lie

For Netanyahu’s campaign, of course, this was a welcome development. The state comptroller’s lethal report about Israel’s transportation system, which was published just this past Wednesday, has been forgotten as if it never happened. Even the rockets fired at the Tel Aviv area Thursday evening have almost disappeared from the public conversation.

There are still more questions than answers about the phone affair. Various conspiracy theories have morphed around it (mainly on the left), as have inflated rumors that seem unlikely to be backed by any evidence (mainly on the right, including, according to several journalists, among people close to Netanyahu).

Still, unlike the falsehoods about Gantz concocted by Netanyahu’s campaign and his right-wing supporters in recent months – the striptease in Kfar Hayarok that never happened sometime back in the 1970s; the distortions of the death of a Druze soldier at Joseph’s Tomb in 2000; the lie, repeated over and over, that Gantz attended a memorial ceremony for Hamas members – every aspect of the current affair demands clarification.

This is essential because the incident has the potential to affect the election campaign. It is undermining relationships among the various components of the Kahol Lavan joint ticket. It may affect Gantz’s personal situation. And hovering in the background are the allegations that a foreign country intervened in the election or that dirty tricks were played on Netanyahu’s behalf. All this will have a critical impact on the next few weeks, the final weeks of the campaign.

This affair thus seems to bear some resemblance to a bigger scandal that took place at the height of the 2016 presidential campaign in the United States – the hacking of the Democratic Party’s computers and the publication of tens of thousands of internal party emails. It later turned out that this was indeed a cyberattack by a foreign country (Russia), and to this day the U.S. authorities are still investigating suspicions, apparently weighty ones, that Donald Trump’s staff colluded in disseminating the material.

What is known with some certainty about the current case is that somebody did hack into Gantz’s phone, and this was reported to him by senior officials in the Shin Bet security service. He hasn’t denied this, and neither has the Shin Bet; the latter has refused to comment on the matter.

Amit Segal, the reporter who broke the story for Channel 12 News, reported that the hackers were Iranian. Moshe Ya’alon, the No. 3 on the Kahol Lavan ticket, told Channel 13 News that Iran wasn’t behind the breach; he implied that it was an operation mounted by political rivals.

Former Labor Party MK Erel Margalit, a leading figure in Israel’s high-tech world, warned in Haaretz two and a half years ago about troubling gaps in Israel’s cyberdefenses. Even then he was worried about the possibility of illicit intervention in an election. He also warned against making the National Cyber Directorate directly responsible to the Prime Minister’s Office without enacting legislation to restrain it.

In an interview with TheMarker over the weekend, Margalit cast doubt on the theory that the Iranians were spying on Gantz. He hinted that the phone could have been hacked by people posing as Iranians, who will now exploit the information they obtained by searching it.

Was there classified material on the phone that could cause security damage, or embarrassing material that could put Gantz at risk of extortion? His statements on the subject were worded carefully.

In a conversation with party activists, he denied that there were any embarrassing videos. To journalists, he said there was no defense-related material on the phone, “and I’m not vulnerable to extortion in any way.” There’s a war on democracy here, he added, and the telephone isn’t the story; it’s just prying, “which I don’t intend to comment on.”

Gantz is right that prying into the personal life of a senior politician is something one might have thought Israel had grown out of (and Netanyahu’s own past is far from pure as the driven snow). Still, we’ve heard more-sweeping denials than this one.

Why is this story nevertheless important? Here’s a list of questions we don’t yet know the answers to. Most relate to Netanyahu and the Shin Bet, but some relate to Gantz.

Was the hack in fact an Iranian operation? Was any security damage caused? (Gantz denies this; the Shin Bet refuses to comment.) Did Gantz, in his private correspondence, behave with the caution required of someone of his stature, a former chief of staff who had long seemed poised to jump into the prime ministerial race?

And a few other questions: What did Netanyahu know about the discovery of the breach and when did he know it? (His office published a statement Friday saying that Shin Bet director Nadav Argaman never reported it to him.) Did he know about it before it was reported by Channel 12?

Is Netanyahu worried about break-ins into the phones of current or former senior defense officials, or is he only interested in the political capital he can expect to reap from the issue? What has been done since the hack was discovered to identify other breaches? (After all, one could get to many other senior officials through Gantz’s phone.)

If it wasn’t Argaman and the Shin Bet, which defense agencies informed Netanyahu? And why are Netanyahu’s cronies meddling in the affair by passing on rumors to journalists that so far are unsupported by any evidence?

The election campaign has descended into the gutters very quickly. It’s a mix we’ve already seen in the U.S. elections, Britain’s Brexit referendum and election campaigns in certain other European countries – private information, foreign hacking (apparently), involvement by Israeli security agencies and the reaping of political capital.

Predictably, pundits’ analyses of this affair have aligned with their political affiliations. This election revolves around one question only – attitudes toward Netanyahu. From this, the interpretations follow almost automatically: Either Gantz was reckless or Netanyahu is playing dirty.

The hack of Gantz’s phone is a fishy matter that merits thorough investigation by an independent body. But it’s hard to believe this will happen.