As NSO Scandal Proves, Israel’s Real Red Line Is the ‘White’ Man

The NSO scandal didn’t erupt two weeks or even two years ago. Israel has refused to seriously look into claims NSO was misused for years. Why should it be different this time?

Oded Yaron
Oded Yaron
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An Israeli woman uses her iPhone in front of the building housing the Israeli NSO group, in Herzliya, near Tel Aviv, in 2016
An Israeli woman uses her iPhone in front of the building housing the Israeli NSO group, in Herzliya, near Tel Aviv, in 2016Credit: JACK GUEZ - AFP
Oded Yaron
Oded Yaron

Last Wednesday evening, officials from Israel’s Defense Ministry visited the offices of NSO Group. The purpose of the visit was to “look into the reports and allegations about it,” the ministry said in a tweet, a reference to the global Project Pegasus investigation launched into its spyware.

This unprecedented visit was a huge victory for the consortium of media organizations led by Forbidden Stories - which Haaretz also participated in - and Amnesty International, as well as Citizen Lab, which reviewed the Project Pegasus findings. This group managed, for the first time ever, to spur the ministry into investigating and even tweeting about these allegations.

Defense Minister Benny Gantz with his French counterpart Florence Parly in Paris, todayCredit: Courtesy of Benny Gantz's Office

As Amitai Ziv, who was involved in the Project Pegasus investigation, and Yaniv Kubovich subsequently reported, the timing of the visit was tied to the timing of Defense Minister Benny Gantz’s visit to France

Read more >> How NSO's Pegasus is used to spy on journalists ■ Analysis: How Israeli spy-tech became dictators' weapon of choice ■ India’s Gandhi and Pakistan’s Khan tapped as targets in Israeli NSO spyware scandal ■ Amnesty ‘stands by findings,’ rejects NSO's claims ■ Israel's NSO and Pegasus are a danger to democracy around the world ■ I was targeted by NSO spyware. Israel is helping Modi undermine India's democracy

The latter took place under the dark clouds of the NSO scandal: One of the biggest revelations of the global investigation was that French President Emmanuel Macron’s phone number was also on the list of potential targets of NSO’s Pegasus software. The list of numbers was the origin for the investigation and new discoveries are still emerging in France as it moves to independently confirm the reports’ findings. Gantz met with his counterpart, Florence Parly, and assured her that Israel was investigating the matter with the utmost seriousness.

Yet judging by the statements and talking points being pushed out by cabinet ministers and defense officials, it’s hard to avoid concluding that “looking into the reports and allegations” isn’t really their top priority.

“The Israeli message is that Israel is looking into the matter at the highest levels, via a special task force established for this purpose. The argument is that even if issues and problems are ultimately discovered in NSO’s case, they stem from the tool’s user – reportedly, the Moroccan secret services [in the case of the potential French targets] – and this was not an Israeli diplomatic move,” a report from Israel’s national broadcaster said, exemplifying the official line. 

In short, the real goal of this investigation is to cover the Israeli government’s collective rear end and pass the buck to the end users – intel agencies across the world. However, these intelligence services belong to regimes that would never have been able to obtain this dangerous spyware – or at least not from Israel if the Defense Ministry had done its job to begin with.

In fact, the ministry’s press statements could easily have been issued by NSO’s spokespeople or those of any other cyberweapon companies; all they would have had to do was change the name of the body issuing it. The statement said that Gantz assured Parly that Israel licenses cyber exports only for the purpose of fighting terror and crime, and only to countries earnestly committed to it.

In an earlier response, the ministry even claimed that its authorization was conditioned on “a commitment by the purchasing countries to comply with these conditions.” But from what has emerged to date, this appears to be wishful thinking - if not an exaggeration, at the very least.

Benny Gantz and Florence Parly in Paris, on Wednesday.Credit: Ariel Hermoni/Defense Ministry

“Even if some ‘conditions’ are included in the terms of use about legal use [of the software] to prevent crime and terror, the refrence is not to international law - but to local laws in the client country, based on its own definitions of crime and terrorism,” explains attorney Eitay Mack, who has long fought firms like NSO in the Israeli courts.

“In any case, the licenses are issued individually to every client country (the companies don’t get universal licenses for their products), and the Defense Ministry doesn’t specify a list of legitimate surveillance targets in the licenses or even attempt to monitor it.”

Sometimes, he added, the licenses don’t even list which specific agencies or units within those agencies are authorized to use the product in a certain country. They merely say “government agencies.”

Pegasus scandal: How the Mossad pushed invasive spyware to friendly dictators. LISTEN

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The “NSO affair,” as Israeli media are dubbing it, didn’t really erupt two weeks ago, last month or even last year. There have been almost a decade’s worth of troubling reports about NSO (and other companies like it; it isn’t alone). They began with Shay Aspril’s 2012 report in the Israeli daily Calcalist, which sparked a storm in Mexico, about contracts worth tens of millions of dollars to sell sophisticated espionage equipment to police forces in the corrupt, crime-ridden country (quite a few articles have already been written about the corruption involved in such deals). 

More than five years ago, reports began surfacing about the abuse of Pegasus thanks to strenuous investigations by Citizen Lab, Amnesty and other organizations. On top of these were official reports by various countries.

And in Israel? Zilch

The huge investigative project that shocked NSO Group and Israel day after day for the past weeks revealed quite a few new things. But many of the disclosures were actually confirmations of things which had already been reported, shedding more light on additional pieces of the puzzles that have long been partially known.

The information that NSO's Pegasus can lift from an infected phone, according to documents filed as part of Facebook's lawsuit against NSOCredit: No credit

Many of the names mentioned on the list of potential targets (to which NSO denied any connection) had already come up in the past as well. The most famous case, of course, was that of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi

It was previously reported that Pegasus was used in his case indirectly when it infected the phone of Omar Abdulaziz, who was in contact with him. But the new list also showed the phone number of Khashoggi’s fiance, which was added a few months before his murder, and those of other friends, which were added after the murder.

Reports in Mexico said the list contained the numbers of people close to the country’s current president, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, as well as the number of its former national security adviser, Manuel Mondragon y Kalb. Those two facts had also previously been reported, in 2019. 

Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador in 2019Credit: Ginnette Riquelme/AP

And what did the Israeli Defense Ministry do upon first learning about them? I’d put my money on something in the range of zilch and nothing.

This is the response Israel received from the ministry at the time (another version of its usual knee jerk reaction): “The Defense Ministry does not divulge details about its defense exports policy, and as part of this, it doesn’t discuss specific licenses or records in the export registry, for security, diplomatic and strategic reasons. 

“Israel’s oversight policy for defense exports is under constant scrutiny at the highest levels of the Defense Ministry and the Foreign Ministry, and is also under the supervision of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee and the courts,” it said at the time, referencing DECA, the official Israeli body that oversees cyber exports for the defense establishment.

Spying on journalists – even when it results in their imprisonment, as happened to Moroccan journalist Omar Radi, or even in some cases their death – evidently wasn't sufficient reason to investigate these suspicions seriously at the time. 

Spying on the relatives of students were kidnapped and murdered in Mexico, or on members of the international commission of inquiry into their murder? Both were also reported in the past but were also not sufficient reason enough to look into whether the allegations against NSO were well-founded.

Even when the allegations involved a prominent politician who later became president of Mexico, an OECD member state, the Defense Ministry saw no reason to investigate whether there was any problem with its export policy. It didn’t think a fiasco-in-the-making like this was sufficient grounds for sending representatives of every possible security service to NSO’s offices.

When that same president’s government asked Israel to extradite a former senior official whose closet was overflowing with skeletons, its response, as per an Israeli official quoted by Ronen Bergman in the New York Times, was: “Why would we help Mexico?” 

So why did the Defense Ministry suddenly wake up now?

French President Emmanuel Macron speaks on his mobile phone at an EU summit in Brussels last year. A phone associated with Macron was also reportedly selected as a target by an NSO client Credit: John Thys,AP

It’s not just because the pressure which is genuinely heavy this time. Nor is it just because of the accumulation of troubling reports; those have been piling higher and higher and higher for years. And it’s not because of the frightening number of potential targets – 50,000. 

If you’ll allow me to guess, the new development that really roused the defense establishment was the revelation that the French president’s phone number was hiding in this list.

It’s not pleasant to say this, but it seems the different response this time reveals a somewhat colonialist spirit hidden in the outlook of the state institutions. The only thing that moves us is pressure from the U.S. (that was the only reason Israel even enacted a defense exports law to begin with) and some Western European countries (“classical” Europe, if you like).

In other words, our real red line is the “white” man.

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