Israel PM vows action as police Pegasus spying scandal widens

Targets include ex-PM Netanyahu’s son, two aides and two former officials suspected of leaking information to media.

The logo of Israeli cyber firm NSO Group is seen at one of its branches in the Arava Desert,
Pegasus is a malware product made by the Israeli firm NSO that can switch on a phone's camera or microphone and harvest its data [Amir Cohen/Reuters]

Israel announced it was setting up a national inquiry on Monday after a newspaper reported illicit use by police of powerful spyware against confidants of former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other public figures.

Israeli police used Pegasus spyware to hack phones of dozens of prominent Israelis – including Netanyahu’s son, activists and senior government officials, the news report said.

The revelation is the latest from the business daily Calcalist, which had previously reported that police used Pegasus without court authorisation against leaders of an anti-Netanyahu protest movement.

Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai said “following the recent publications” he had asked Public Security Minister Omer Barlev to establish “an external and independent commission of inquiry, headed by a judge”, to probe the allegations.

“To the extent that the commission finds irregularities and failures, they will be dealt with in accordance with the law,” Shabtai said in a statement on Monday, adding the incidents cited by Calcalist predated his appointment in 2021.

Pegasus is a malware product made by the Israeli firm NSO that can switch on a phone’s camera or microphone and harvest its data.

It has been at the centre of a months-long international scandal following revelations that it was used by governments worldwide to spy on activists, politicians, journalists and even heads of state.

NSO says all its sales are government-authorised and it does not itself run Pegasus.

Israel had come under fire for allowing the export of the invasive technology to states with poor human rights records, but the Calcalist revelations have triggered a domestic scandal and multiple state investigations.

Prior to Monday’s report, the attorney general, state comptroller, and the justice ministry’s privacy watchdog all announced probes into the potential use of Pegasus on Israelis.

In its latest report, Calcalist said dozens of people were targeted who were not suspected of any criminal conduct, and without police receiving the necessary court approval.

They include senior leaders of the finance, justice and communication ministries, mayors, and Ethiopian Israelis who led protests against alleged police misconduct.

In another revelation set to rock Netanyahu’s ongoing corruption trial, Calcalist also reported key witness Ilan Yeshua, former chief executive of the Walla news site, was also a target.

Netanyahu is accused of seeking to trade regulatory favours with media moguls in exchange for favourable coverage, including on Walla. He denies the charges.

His lawyers on Monday demanded the trial be halted until the latest revelations were probed.

The court hearing the case against Netanyahu said it was cancelling the next session, scheduled for Tuesday, and would await answers from the prosecution about the hacking allegations before deciding whether proceedings would resume on Wednesday.

“This is a black day for the state of Israel,” said Netanyahu. “Without referring to my issue, which of course has wide implications, I think this case concerns all citizens of the country – not right, not left, all citizens of the country without exception. Something inconceivable has happened here.”

Calls for independent inquiry

Police have been conducting internal investigations, and answering questions before parliamentary oversight panels, since Calcalist last month reported that its investigators had used Pegasus against Israeli citizens – sometimes without warrants.

That report created a domestic furore over the Pegasus spyware, prompting the government of Naftali Bennett to order export reviews.

On Monday, Bennett promised government action.

“We won’t leave this without a response. Things allegedly happened here that are very serious,” Bennett said in a statement that also defended Pegasus, which can turn a phone into a pocket spying device, as an “important tool in the fight against terrorism”.

Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked, a member of his right-wing party, called for an external commission of inquiry to be set up.

This was echoed by centrist Immigration Minister Pnina Tamano-Shata and liberal Environment Minister Tamar Zandberg, the latter of whom urged on Twitter: “Commission of inquiry, no excuses or semantics.”

NSO has consistently denied wrongdoing throughout the multistranded Pegasus scandal, stressing that all its sales are government-authorised.

It has also insisted that it does not operate the system once sold to clients and has no access to any of the data collected.

Source: News Agencies