Analysis

Iranian Hacking of Gantz's Phone Could Open Door to Blackmail – and Impact Israel's Election

The former army chief's potentially careless behavior may have cost him the election

Benny Gantz launches Kahol Lavan, his political alliance with Yair Lapid, at an event in Tel Aviv, February 24, 2019.
Tomer Appelbaum

UPDATE: Gantz denies sex tape after Iranians hack phone, says there's no threat of extortion

The events on Thursday night – the rocket fired from Gaza to Tel Aviv, but no less the discovery that Iranians had hacked into the cellphone of Benny Gantz – could decide the outcome of the general election.

The surprise sprung by the Palestinians will grab most of the headlines for now. But the report of the hacking, broadcast by Amit Segal of Channel 12 news, may have far-reaching political consequences.

>> Analysis: Shock rocket attack on Tel Aviv pits Netanyahu against Gaza at risky political time ■ To defeat Gantz, Netanyahu instructs his party to lie | Analysis

Not that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu needed the boost; even before this, the Kahol Lavan alliance's campaign seemed to be stumbling. Nevertheless, this scandal could yet send the party of the generals to unforeseen lows.

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Over the past two years, following Donald Trump’s election as U.S. president, the Russian term “kompromat” became widespread. It refers to compromising material that foreign, and potentially hostile, intelligence services could exploit for their own purposes at the right time.

Everyone has secrets that are more or less embarrassing. Many incautiously keep some of this private information on their smartphones. In recent years, as cyberwarfare has expanded in many countries – and Iran is one of the leaders in this field – there has been an increase in efforts to steal information from personal cellphones and computers.

People who know Gantz consider him a decent man. To date, the right hasn’t managed to find any skeletons in his closet. An attempt to accuse him of sexual harassment while in high school collapsed a few weeks ago.

But this time, we’re talking about a completely different kettle of fish. If Iran broke into the smartphone of the former IDF chief of staff and prime ministerial candidate, one has to assume that everything on that phone is now in its hands. If any of the information it has is problematic – and that’s always a possibility – there could be a risk of extortion at a time convenient to the Iranians.

This is a huge shock, for two reasons. First, because it could be a result of incautious behavior by a senior defense official, someone who, by virtue of his past positions, ought to know exactly what can be achieved by hacking a cellphone.

Second, because according to Segal’s report, the Shin Bet security service told Gantz about the hack “five weeks and one day ago,” meaning in early February. That’s exactly when Gantz set up his party and officially announced that he was running in the election. A few weeks later, he formed a joint ticket with Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid party, and the resultant Kahol Lavan ticket surged to first place in the polls.

The Shin Bet refused Thursday night to comment in any way on Segal’s report, which said that two of the agency’s department heads had informed Gantz about the hack. One sensitive question that arises from the report is what the Shin Bet told its direct superior, the prime minister, who is also, purely by chance, Gantz’s main rival in the election.

Shin Bet director Nadav Argaman is known as an independent person who follows his own conscience and isn’t eager to please his superiors. Did he go directly to Gantz without telling Netanyahu? What we don’t know about this incident still outweighs what we do, even excluding the fact that we don’t know what information the Iranians now have.

Just as happened in the U.S. presidential election and Britain’s referendum on Brexit, all the worrying developments which experts have been warning us about for years may now be infecting Israel’s campaign. These include cyberwarfare operations, headline-making personal disclosures and extortion attempts.

For now, it’s happening because of the Iranians, but we don’t for sure that it will end there. Argaman himself hinted at the possibility of Russian involvement in the campaign just a few months ago.

At the same time, as of Thursday night, we’re also embroiled in a security crisis of a different order of magnitude in Gaza. Fasten your seatbelts.

Benny Gantz at a Kahol Lavan event in Beer Sheva, March 11, 2019.
Eliyahu Hershkovitz