Israel’s domestic spying scandal widened Monday, with Prime Minister Naftali Bennett vowing government action following new reports that police illegally used the Pegasus malware to hack phones of dozens of prominent figures.
The latest bombshell from business daily Calcalist alleged that Pegasus was used against a son of former premier Benjamin Netanyahu and his advisors, as well as activists, senior government officials, businessmen and others.
Calcalist had previously reported that the controversial malware, which can turn a phone into a pocket spying device, was used by police against leaders of an anti-Netanyahu protest movement.
After Monday’s report emerged, Bennett vowed that his government “won’t leave this without a response”.
“The reports apparently describe a very grave situation that is unacceptable in a democracy,” Bennett said.
“These cyber tools were designed to fight terrorism and serious crime, not be used against citizens. We will see to a transparent, in-depth and quick inquiry.”
As Bennett pledged action, Minister for Public Security Omer Barlev, who oversees the police, said he would seek authorization for a government commission of inquiry.
The police told AFP in a statement that Commissioner Yaakov Shabtai requested an “external and independent investigation committee” and that police would “cooperate fully and transparently”.
‘A way of working’
Pegasus, a malware product made by the Israeli firm NSO Group, is at the center 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.
Israel had already come under fire for allowing the export of the invasive technology to states with poor human rights records.
Calcalist said dozens of people were targeted who were not suspected of criminal conduct, and without police receiving the necessary court approval.
They include senior leaders of the finance, justice and communication ministries, supermarket magnate Rami Levy, mayors, Ethiopian-Israelis who led protests against alleged police misconduct, and two former Netanyahu advisors.
Eyal Cohen, an activist for disabled people who was reportedly surveilled by police, told public television: “I feel they are crushing our rights with a coarse foot. There’s no democracy anymore.”
Tehilla Shwartz Altshuler, an expert on technology and the law at the Israel Democracy Institute, told AFP the long list of spying targets indicated that police surveillance of private citizens was “not a mistake, it was a policy, it was a way of working”.
‘I truly am shocked’
The revelations are impacting Netanyahu’s ongoing corruption trial.
Netanyahu is accused of seeking to trade regulatory favors with media moguls in exchange for favorable coverage, including on Walla. He denies the charges.
Calcalist reported that key witness Ilan Yeshua, former chief executive of the Walla news site, was a target.
The justice ministry confirmed to AFP that the Jerusalem District Court cancelled a hearing in Netanyahu’s trial scheduled for Tuesday, and instructed prosecutors to answer questions from the former premier’s lawyers about the extent of the espionage.
The lawyers submitted their questions last week after multiple Israeli broadcasters reported that police may have used spyware on Shlomo Filber, a former Netanyahu ally turned state witness.
Avner Netanyahu, one of the premier’s sons, was also on the list. “I truly am shocked,” he wrote on Facebook.
His father, now Israel’s opposition leader, reportedly promoted Pegasus as a diplomatic tool to cultivate relationships with other countries.
On Monday, the former premier demanded an independent investigation of Israeli police use of spyware.
“They stripped citizens naked,” Netanyahu said of police in an impassioned speech in parliament.
“They followed them, listened to them, entered their most hidden secrets, and who knows what forbidden use they made of this spying?”
NSO has consistently denied wrongdoing throughout the multi-stranded Pegasus scandal, stressing that it does not operate the system once sold to clients, and has no access to any of the data collected.