Analysis |

Israel’s Spyware Diplomacy Is an Extension of Its Long Bloody History of Arms Sales

Arms sales have always been a tool for promoting the foreign and security policies of Israeli governments and what they define as ‘national interests’

Yossi Melman head
Yossi Melman
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Israel's NSO Group, illustration.
Israel's NSO Group, illustration.Credit: AP, Reuters, Shutterstock
Yossi Melman head
Yossi Melman

Over three decades ago, after quite a lot of money had changed hands, the Mossad succeeded in making a new acquisition from a Muslim country with which Israel had no diplomatic relations. The acquisition was a weapons system manufactured in the Soviet Union that was in use by Arab states. The system was purchased at the request of the Israel Air Force, which used it to learn all about the weapon, and how to improve its own capability to counter it. The hope was that the purchase would also help Israel establish diplomatic relations with that country. That hope remains unrealized, to this day.

Use of the Mossad, the intelligence that it acquires, and arms sales, for the purpose of promoting the country’s foreign relations, are all closely intertwined with Israeli history.

In that respect, there's nothing surprising about the fact that the Ministry of Defense and the Mossad encouraged NSO Group to sell its invasive Pegasus spyware to Arab states. Pegasus played its part and contributed to expanding Israel's foreign relations, but at the same time, one should not go overboard and suggest that it was responsible for the signing of the Abraham Accords, an idea posited in an investigative piece published in the New York Times this past weekend. The fact is that Saudi Arabia still refuses to establish diplomatic relations with Israel. What led the UAE, Bahrain and Morocco to establish open diplomatic relations with Israel was the broad overlapping interests shared by both Israel and the Gulf states, first and foremost concerns of Iran's expansion schemes.

There's a great deal of hypocrisy, feigned innocence, mudslinging and superficial posturing when it comes to the NSO affair. This is no black and white story. The New York Times investigation, in which one of the reporters is the Israeli journalist Ronen Bergman, sharpens and underscores this fact. It is an investigative report that follows a long series of publications in recent years, in Israel and elsewhere, including Haaretz, about the misdeeds of the offensive cyber firm active in a technological world in which the concept of “the right to privacy” no longer has much meaning.

The Times’ investigation included three new elements: One is that following the murder of Washington Post coloumnist Jamal Khashoggi, whose body was dismembered in the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul in October 2018 by Saudi intelligence operatives acting on the orders of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, NSO shut off use of Pegasus to the Saudi kingdom. It should be stressed that NSO has in the past denied ever selling the software to Saudi Arabia. In addition, even if this ”Israeli toy” was used in surveillance of Khashoggi, a claim that NSO has denied, the mission to liquidate him would have been realized even without a tap on his telephone. Khashoggi personally called the Saudi ambassador in Washington, Khalid bin Salman, who happens to be the brother of the Crown Prince, and informed him that he would soon be arriving at the consulate in order to receive the documents he needed in order to marry a Turkish citizen. That call was intercepted, apparently by American intelligence and later presented as evidence of the Saudi official involvement in the murder.

Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2014Credit: Hasan Jamali /AP

According to the Times’ investigation, after access to NSO’s system was shut off, the Crown Prince personally telephoned Benjamin Netanyahu, who then intervened, and NSO reopened Saudi access to Pegasus. Netanyahu denies the charge.

The second revelation is the claim that the CIA underwrote the purchase of the spyware by the Djibouti government, so that it would assist in the struggle against terror groups operating in the Horn of Africa, a region that for years has been of great strategic importance to Israel, as well.

The third revelation is that the FBI, during the Trump-era, tested and considered the option of purchasing Pegasus for nearly two years, but eventually after Biden came to office, decided not to make use of the “limited license” it did buy, reportedly to learn more about the spyware.

It shows that unlike in Israel, in the United States, they are much more careful and sensitive of how to strike a balance between national security and civil liberties rights, but conversely, this revelation also underscores the hypocrisy of the U.S. in placing NSO on the black list of companies with which it is now forbidden to do business. After all, the U.S. has itself been active in global wiretapping, through the National Security Agency, including listening in on the calls of former German chancellor Angela Merkel.

Hypocrisy, feigning innocence and evading responsibility are also the lot of the owners, executives and employees of NSO. The founders of the company, Shalev Hulio and Omri Lavie, were young entrepreneurs who had no inhibitions and who understood that they had developed a highly unique product. Their greed spurred them to make easy, quick money. Questions of ethics and values, and the philosophical consequence of wielding a tool such as Pegasus – for all intents and purposes, a guided-missile – were of no interest for them.

CEO of Israel's NSO Group Shalev Hulio at Bloomfield Stadium, in Tel Aviv in 2020Credit: AMMAR AWAD / REUTERS

An NSO spokesman told Haaretz that the company had closed down the system seven times over the years due to concerns of inappropriate use, in spite of the contracts to which NSO was signed. He refused to name the countries, but one might guess that aside from Saudi Arabia, the system was shut off to Uganda after it was disclosed that Pegasus had been installed in the telephones of American diplomats at the Kampala embassy.

Notwithstanding NSO’s contention that it has always been careful to operate in accordance with the law, in an interview that Hulio granted to Israel’s “News 12” on Saturday night, he sounded his usual smug self, devoid of remorse. One got the impression that even now he doesn't really get it, or that he simply doesn't care what sort of monster he created.

As early as 2011, when it was first released, Pegasus was already a lethal monster. The company's first client was Mexico. That country served as NSO’s testing ground, and that is where the original sin lies. NSO's lack of inhibition is also one of the reasons that several former Mossad operatives turned down the company's attempts to recruit them, even as it concealed and justified its actions by showing off the export permits it received from the Ministry of Defense.

Sell as much as you can

Enter the organization at the top of the list of hypocrisy, feigned innocence and evasion of responsibility in this story – the Ministry of Defense. There is nothing new about Ministry of Defense officials looking the other way when arms are being sold to dubious regimes and then tut-tutting when its disgrace is exposed in public. This has happened repeatedly ever since the 1960s. Under Israel's authority and with its permission, weapons have been sold to the Apartheid regime in South Africa and to tyrannical regimes in Africa that violated human rights and killed opponents of the regime. This was also the case for dictatorial states in Central and South America in the late 1980s. A former commander of the IDF’s Sayeret Haruv reconnaissance unit, Lieutenant Colonel (res.) Yair Klein, engaged in arms sales and trained private militias in Columbia, which then acted at the behest of the drug cartels, including one led by Pablo Escobar. And so on and so forth.

Arms sales have always been a tool for promoting the foreign and security policies of Israeli governments and what they define as “national interests.” At present, the activity of high-tech and cyber firms is a platform for what could be called ”Spying diplomacy.” The phenomenon of using Israel’s military and intelligence capabilities to promote diplomatic links, aided by “Tevel” – the Mossad’s foreign relations branch – and the help of the Ministry of Defense, has always existed. It accelerated during Benjamin Netanyahu’s tenure, and has further expanded since 2015, with the appointment of Yossi Cohen as Mossad director.

Former Mossad Director Yossi Cohen at a Jerusalem Post convention in DecemberCredit: Ohad Zwigenberg

Although NSO was interested in selling Pegasus to 90 different countries, but did not get the okay for 50 of them, there were other instances in which the sale was exploited to establish or enhance diplomatic relations. This was the case with Uganda and Rwanda, and particularly with Arab states. Conversely, the Ministry of Defense did not approve similar sales to Qatar, Jordan, Egypt and Turkey.

And that is the heart of the matter: When the Ministry of Defense wants to, it knows how to put on the brakes on arms sales. On more than one occasion, representatives of tyrannical states that have aided the Mossad in operations against Israel's enemies, such as Iran or Hezbollah, asked Israel to help them with weapons and even do away with opponents of the regime. On nearly every occasion, the Mossad turned them down.

The Ministry of Defense should have been sensitive enough not to sell Pegasus to Saudi Arabia, Morocco, the UAE and other states that along with their wars on terror do not hesitate to engage, as well, in political assassinations and persecution of regime opponents. That is how it should have acted in those instances in which there were concerns that sales of the software would end with its harmful exploitation. The leaders of these states would have been angry at Israel, but they need Israel no less than it needs them.

When it comes to games played between nations there are nearly no sentiments; there are only interests. Israel is not the only Western democracy that makes use of invasive technological tools for purposes of intelligence gathering and the war on terror and crime. The United States, France, Britain and many other countries also have such tools or similar ones. There is a great measure of hypocrisy here in singling out Israel.

But on the other hand, this is not surprising either, when the Israeli Ministry of Defense repeatedly trumpets the high volume of its global arm sales. Only this past Monday, the ministry published data according to which it has approved arms sales to no fewer than 130 countries.

Quite belatedly, Rachel Chen, director of the Defense Ministry’s Israeli Defense Export Controls Agency, announced a tightening of the regulations and toughening of procedures pertaining to “export of intelligence and cyber systems.” Her saying, further down in the announcement, that the ministry will continue “ to emphasize protection and avoidance of harm to human rights,” is a cynical statement, not to mention a tasteless joke at a time when the spirited message of the commander – i.e., Defense ,inister Benny Gantz and the government is to “sell as much as you can.” What is needed now is not lip service, but the introduction of profound and radical reforms with the purpose of formulating a new policy that would truly and fully strike a balance between security needs, human rights protection and ethics and values. The latter are also an important component of our national security.

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