The New York Times investigation published Friday provides additional proof that under former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the NSO Group operated almost as an arm of the government. The overlap between the states on Israel’s new friends’ list and the states that bought NSO’s advanced Pegasus spyware is no coincidence. It turns out that the Israeli government and NSO embarked together on this campaign.
The investigation indicates that the Netanyahu government traded in export licenses for diplomatic purposes, using Pegasus to win friends, including dictatorships or semi-dictatorships, among them Saudi Arabia. Netanyahu and NSO did not care about how the software was used – that is, against whom – and whether it was limited to fighting crime and terrorism or also used to persecute regime opponents, human rights activists or journalists and their sources.
The investigation shows how Netanyahu intervened to reinstate Saudi Arabia’s license to use Pegasus. In 2017 Israel decided to approve the sale of the software to Saudi Arabia, in the hope of earning the gratitude of the Saudi crown prince. But after the 2018 murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, and because it was claimed that Saudi Arabia had used Pegasus in order to spy on him, the Israeli cyberwarfare firm’s ethics committee urged the company to shut off the Pegasus system in Saudi Arabia.
In 2019 NSO agreed to reconnect the Pegasus system in Saudi Arabia, in the context of Netanyahu’s contacts regarding the Abraham Accords. Until the accords were announced, Israel gave NSO a permit to sell Pegasus to almost all of the countries that signed the agreements. A month after the signing Saudi Arabia’s license expired, and the Israeli Defense Ministry refused to renew it because of the Khashoggi affair.
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But then Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman entered the picture, according to the New York Times report. He called Netanyahu personally and threatened to withdraw from part of the Abraham Accords. That evening, under Netanyahu’s orders, the Defense Ministry extended the license, and Pegasus was reauthorized in Saudi Arabia.
The picture is clear: NSO and the Israeli government worked in full cooperation. NSO’s transactions were carried out with the approval and encouragement of the Netanyahu government. That is why we shouldn’t see the government only as having failed to supervise NSO’s dubious transactions, but also as the main body responsible for the failure.
The strategic considerations of Israel’s defense and foreign affairs establishment, and moreover its leaders, have a duty to take into account that it is forbidden to undermine human rights, either directly or through an intermediary, even in distant countries. We must rid ourselves of the Israeli way of thinking, according to which “We don’t ask our arms customers about human rights,” presumably because it’s none of our business. Without internalizing that lesson Israel will become a full partner of shady regimes and will imprint itself and its citizens with the mark of Cain.
The above article is Haaretz's lead editorial, as published in the Hebrew and English newspapers in Israel.