Gantz strategist: Likud leaking false claims on phone saga

After phone hacking, Likud claims Iran pushing for Gantz, Lapid to win election

Two days after report that Tehran accessed cellphone of Blue and White leader, his colleague Lapid says Netanyahu is ‘spinning’ the story, spreading lies

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US bureau chief

Blue and White party leader Benny Gantz holds a press conference in Kibbutz Nahal Oz in southern Israel on March 15, 2019. (Flash90)
Blue and White party leader Benny Gantz holds a press conference in Kibbutz Nahal Oz in southern Israel on March 15, 2019. (Flash90)

In an election ad Saturday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party claimed Iran was interfering in the upcoming Knesset election in order to ensure that the Blue and White party wins.

The campaign video, designed to damage Blue and White head Benny Gantz’s standing by asserting that Israel’s enemies in Tehran support him, aired two days after Channel 12 news reported that the Islamic Republic had hacked Gantz’s personal cellphone and obtained access to its entire contents. It asserted that “the Iranian regime openly supports” Gantz and his Blue and White No. 2 Yair Lapid.

Channel 12 on Saturday night quoted unnamed security sources saying there was no sensitive security information on Gantz’s phone but that it was “a personal embarrassment” for him.

Lapid told the TV station that “of course” there was no sensitive material on the phone, since ex-chief of staff Gantz had spent a lifetime maintaining Israel’s security interests and knew full well how to maintain field security.

Yesh Atid chairman Yair Lapid (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Lapid directly accused Netanyahu of falsely “spinning” the phone hack story to distract attention from the corruption allegations against him, from criticism of his Gaza policy, and from his lies. Netanyahu “lies when he breathes,” said Lapid. Only the prime minister had the wherewithal and the motivation to spin the phone hack story, said Lapid, and now “he’s sitting in his office laughing and laughing.”

Yisrael Beytenu party leader and former defense minister Avigdor Liberman also dismissed the phone hacking story Saturday. “The prime minster wants us to deal with trivial matters, to distract all the time,” he told Channel 12.

Saturday’s Likud video appeared to be in response to claims by Blue and White leaders that Netanyahu was behind reports on the hack, and was disseminating misinformation in an attempt to hurt his political rival.

“The Shin Bet confirmed that the PM did not know anything about the Gantz matter and senior journalists have said so as well,” the Likud campaign video said. “This is an attempt by Lapid and Gantz to distort the fact that the Iranian regime openly supports them.”

The Likud ad then went on to cite a February report from a weekly news bulletin that Iran’s state radio broadcasts in Hebrew.

“Former Chief of Staff Benny Gantz has presented a real leadership alternative to Benjamin Netanyahu. Hopefully, he will succeed in this mission,” the Iranian broadcaster is heard saying at the conclusion of the campaign video.

Blue and White has vowed to take a tough stance against Iran.

Likud based its claim that Tehran prefers Blue and White on its assertion that Gantz and Blue and White No. 2 Lapid supported the 2015 Iranian nuclear deal, as opposed to Netanyahu, who fought against its signing.

In fact, Lapid opposed the 2015 accord, but argued after it was finalized that it was unwise to antagonize the US administration, which had championed the deal under former president Barack Obama. Similarly, Gantz was not enthusiastic about the agreement, but after it became a fait accompli, he said he refused to get “hysterical” about it.

“I do agree that a better deal could have been reached,” he said in 2015, shortly after leaving his post as army chief of staff. “But I also see the half-full part of the glass here,” he added, noting that the deal keeps Iran away from a nuclear weapons capability “for ten, fifteen years into the future.”

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei waves to thousands of members of the Basij paramilitary organization in their gathering at the Azadi stadium in Tehran, Iran, on October 4, 2018. (Office of the Iranian Supreme Leader via AP)

On Saturday, a campaign strategist for Blue and White told The Times of Israel that a spokesman for Netanyahu has been briefing reporters following the initial Channel 12 report, falsely telling them that the Iranian hackers managed to gather very sensitive, personal information that places Gantz at risk of extortion in the future.

The strategist, Ronen Tzur, did not deny the initial report regarding the Iranian hack, but claimed that Netanyahu and his Likud party were trying to capitalize on the report and were exaggerating its ramifications.

Tzur said Netanyahu was “exploiting sensitive security information for use in a false briefing to reporters.” The strategist declined to elaborate on the “false” details that were given to reporters in said briefings and did not identify which journalists were briefed.

He argued that the use of sensitive security information against a political rival represented “the collapse of Israeli democracy.”

For its part, Likud denied the claims made by Tzur and other members of Blue and White leadership, who have asserted that Likud was behind the hacking story.

Blue and White issued its own election ad on Saturday evening in which the centrist party’s top candidates list their military achievements and tell Netanyahu: “You will not teach us what leadership is; and certainly not what national responsibility is either.”

On Friday, former defense minister and senior Blue and White candidate Moshe Ya’alon asserted that Iran was not behind the hack of Gantz’s cellphone, while accusing Netanyahu of leaking the story to the media.

Ya’alon did not say explicitly who he believed hacked the phone, but hinted that Netanyahu was involved.

“The Iranians are not behind the hack, they aren’t the ones attacking the prime minister’s rivals. Someone has degenerated the political system and is willing to sacrifice all values for political survival,” Ya’alon said in an interview with Channel 13 news.

Pressed on whether he was suggesting the Shin Bet invented the story, Ya’alon said he was “convinced” the security service was not behind it.

“I know the defense establishment, and I also know the prime minister’s world,” he said. “This did not come from the Shin Bet.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, center, then-defense minister Moshe Ya’alon, right, and then-IDF chief of staff Benny Gantz, left, at a press conference at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem, August 27, 2014. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Netanyahu has said neither he nor his aides were informed by Shin Bet chief Nadav Argaman that Gantz’s phone had been hacked.

In a press conference Friday near the Gaza border, Gantz dismissed the news of the hacking of his phone as “political gossip” and questioned the timing of the report, which came as Blue and White has seen its lead over Likud slip in the polls ahead of general elections on April 9.

Asked if there was any embarrassing content on the phone, Gantz said he would not dignify such “ethical nosiness” with a response. His party had earlier said there were “no embarrassing videos” on the phone. Asked if the phone contained material relating to any relationship with a woman that might be used to extort him, he dismissed the notion.

“Someone is pushing this spin, and turning the real problem into one that does not exist,” he said.

Channel 12 news first reported Thursday that Gantz, a former military chief, was approached five weeks ago by officials from the Shin Bet security service who informed him that his personal phone had been hacked by Iran following his formal entry into politics in December.

Benny Gantz, left, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right. (Gili Yaari, Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The Shin Bet agents reportedly told Gantz that hackers in Iran got hold of his personal details and text messages and that he should assume that any sensitive information in the phone could be used against him in the future. They told him to proceed as he saw fit.

Blue and White has stressed no sensitive information was on Gantz’s phone and noted it was hacked four years after he retired as IDF chief of staff.

Separately, the Ynet news site reported Friday that another Israeli politician, a member of the high-level security cabinet, was recently informed of efforts to hack his phone.

The report did not name the lawmaker and said it was unclear who was behind the hacking attempt and whether any information was stolen.

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