Bennett to huddle with ministers to weigh state commission on police NSO scandal

PM, Sa’ar, Barlev and new AG expected to consider a number of options, including waiting to take further steps until deputy AG’s panel presents findings

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett (center) addresses a weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem on February 6, 2022. (Haim Zach/ GPO)
Prime Minister Naftali Bennett (center) addresses a weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem on February 6, 2022. (Haim Zach/ GPO)

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett will hold a meeting with senior government officials on Tuesday evening to discuss the ongoing NSO scandal and weigh launching a state commission of inquiry to determine the scope of the police’s allegedly illicit use of the Pegasus spyware against Israeli civilians, according to Hebrew media reports.

The meeting at the IDF’s Kirya military headquarters in Tel Aviv will be attended by Justice Minister Gideon Sa’ar, Public Security Minister Omer Barlev and new Attorney General Gali Baharav-Miara, among others, the Haaretz daily said, adding that the senior officials will also consider a less forceful government examination of the allegations. The ministers may also choose to wait until an already created investigatory committee headed by Deputy Attorney General Amit Marari releases its initial findings. A state commission of inquiry would require the approval of the full cabinet.

A number of ministers have already voiced their support for a powerful state commission of inquiry, which could subpoena those involved to testify. Finance Minister Avigdor Liberman penned a letter to Bennett on Tuesday demanding such a probe be opened. He joins Sa’ar, Barlev and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid in calling for a state commission, though the latter argued that the panel should start by investigating members of the previous government led by Likud chair Benjamin Netanyahu, as it was in power when the alleged illicit use of NSO’s phone-tapping technology began.

Opposition members, including MKs in Likud, have also called for a state commission, pointing to the reported police targeting of Netanyahu’s family and inner circle as well as witnesses in his criminal trial, which they say should be scrapped as a result.

Bennett thus far has said that the allegations are serious and that those responsible should be held to account if it is proven that the police deployed the spyware illegally. However, Bennett also argued that Pegasus plays an important role in Israel’s war on terror, and that it need not be tossed altogether as a result of the scandal.

At a celebratory toast marking her entrance into her new post on Tuesday, Baharav-Miara said that the allegations against the police would be among the first matters she’d look into, although she didn’t go into further detail.

Earlier in the day, Israel Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai said he would return early from his work trip in the United Arab Emirates to deal with the developments up close amid burgeoning public criticism.

Newly appointed Attorney General Gali Baharav-Miara seen during a welcome ceremony for her in Jerusalem on February 8, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Shabtai continued to deny allegations that officers used spyware illegally against Israeli public and private figures, and said an internal investigation of the allegations so far has found “no evidence of breaking the law.”

In a bombshell report into the use of spyware by the Israel Police published by the Calcalist newspaper Monday, it was claimed that NSO Group’s Pegasus spyware was deployed against senior government officials, mayors, activist leaders, journalists, and former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s family members and advisers.

According to the report, police used the software to hack into the phones of the then-directors general of the finance, justice, communication and transportation ministries; prominent businessman Rami Levy; Ilan Yeshua, the former CEO of Walla and currently a top witness in the trial against Netanyahu; Netanya Mayor Miriam Feirberg; Avner Netanyahu, the son of the former prime minister; leaders of Ethiopian-Israeli protests against police, and many others.

According to Channel 13, NSO Group’s CEO Shalev Hulio has promised to cooperate with the investigation, while freezing the system used by the Israel Police until the investigation is complete.

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