The Iranian hacking of a smartphone belonging to the head of the Kahol Lavan party and former military chief Benny Gantz, disclosed last week by Channel 12 News, seems like the realization of concerns about foreign intervention in Israel’s election campaign, sparked by the Russian intervention in the U.S. campaign in which Donald Trump was elected president.
Shortly after the news broke Thursday, several commentators close to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Gantz would have no choice but to withdraw. This is a baseless demand. Do they know what was in that phone? If so, how did they get this information?
The public has no idea what information the Iranians or Israeli security agencies may have, and, no less serious, who else has this information, who may exploit it and to what end. Former legislator Erel Margalit, one of the largest investors in Israeli cybercompanies, told TheMarker over the weekend that it was obvious this would happen.
“It happened in the United States in 2016, it happened in France and it happened in Britain with Brexit. It will now be possible to publish all sorts of things about Gantz that could damage him electorally,” Margalit said.
“That’s the objective, whether these things are true or false. For this material to be published, it must first be cleared so that people can determine where it came from. News about the hacking always precedes grosser intervention. I now expect material about Gantz to start leaking, material with a clear source.”
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The scenario described by Margalit fits the chain of developments. The possibility that the Iranians have sensitive information about Gantz is worrisome, even if he said Friday that he won’t become the subject of extortion and that his phone contained no sensitive security-related material. No less worrying is the possibility that some information on Gantz’s phone will leak from security agencies to Netanyahu’s campaign team.
Since the beginning of the campaign, Likud and Netanyahu have been trying to tarnish Gantz in a variety of ways, including by spreading false information. Using the contents of a phone hacked by an enemy state is a serious escalation. Such information should only be in the hands of state security agencies, but all these, including the Mossad, the Shin Bet, the National Security Council, Military Intelligence and the National Cyber Directorate are subordinate to Netanyahu.
On Saturday, Netanyahu showed how he could turn a cyberattack against a former chief of staff into incitement: “This is an attempt by [Yair] Lapid and Gantz to distort the fact that the Iranian regime openly supports them,” he said. Given that Israel has a prime minister lacking inhibition, and to assuage concerns about election interference, election committee chief Hanan Melcer must find a way to oversee this dangerous incident, go through the chain of events and ensure that it’s not exploited for a grave assault on the democratic process.
The above article is Haaretz’s lead editorial, as published in the Hebrew and English newspapers in Israel.