The NSO Affair Is a National Failure for Israel

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A protest attended by dozens of people outside the offices of the Israeli spyware firm NSO Group in Herzliya, in July.

On Wednesday the U.S. Commerce Department added the two Israeli offensive-cyber firms NSO Group and Candiru to its Entity List of companies hostile to U.S. national interests, because of their activities in the service of dictatorial regimes and against democratic values worldwide.

For all intents and purposes, the U.S. Commerce Department froze these two companies’ activities in the United States, with everything that entails. This is a severe blow to the companies, but no less so, it is a clear sign of failure on the part of Israel to monitor its offensive-cyber firms.

At the top of the list of failing entities is the Defense Ministry, in which there is a department that oversees defense exports. This department, which is supposed to monitor NSO sales to various countries, was not wise enough to take into account human rights considerations.

Another failure can be laid at the doorstep of the Knesset, especially the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, which oversees and monitors the Defense Ministry in secret, with no transparency. A third failure may be ascribed to the Foreign Ministry, which oversees Israeli diplomacy. The Foreign Ministry failed to see how the offensive-cyber firms could entangle Israel in a diplomatic crisis, as indeed happened in the end.

Above all, it is the failure of former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Under his leadership, Israel suffered from diplomatic shortsightedness when it came to cyber exports. It “sacrificed” Western longtime friends like France and the United States for the sake of warming ties with Saudi Arabia, the Gulf States and Morocco – all NSO clients.

Under Netanyahu, NSO blossomed and grew along with his career as prime minister, and wherever he marked diplomatic targets, the footprint of the Pegasus Project could be found. Netanyahu tightened ties with Arab countries (Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates) and with Eastern European autocracies (Hungary), and Pegasus popped up in those places, frequently after intercession by the defense establishment.

The Israeli justice system must also be added to the list of bodies that failed in this regard. Despite a number of petitions on the matter, it always found in favor of NSO, behind closed doors, of course.

In the face of the failures of all these gatekeepers, civil society organizations must be praised, as can some of the media, which ceaselessly warned of the damage NSO causes in the world. But despite these incessant warnings, Israel, as a country, failed to realize the limitations of power, especially the change of global discourse in an age when citizens and governments are fighting to preserve their security and restore their loss of privacy due to technology.

The above article is Haaretz's lead editorial, as published in the Hebrew and English newspapers in Israel.

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