Court orders state to respond by Tuesday to alleged police hacking in Netanyahu case

Jerusalem District Court says trial can proceed after reports investigators drained data from key witness’s phone without approval

Former Communications Ministry director-general Shlomo Filber arrives for a hearing at the Rishon Lezion Magistrate's Court on February 18, 2018. (Flash90)
Former Communications Ministry director-general Shlomo Filber arrives for a hearing at the Rishon Lezion Magistrate's Court on February 18, 2018. (Flash90)

The Jerusalem District Court on Friday gave state prosecutors in Benjamin Netanyahu’s graft trial until Tuesday to answer questions from the defense about police use of spyware in the investigation into the former premier.

The defense attorneys had requested that hearings on Monday deal with the issue, but judges decided on Friday that the trial could proceed as usual in the meantime.

Reports have indicated that police, without the necessary approval from a judge, used spyware to drain all the data from the phone of Shlomo Filber, a former director-general of the Communications Ministry and longtime confidant of Netanyahu. Filber is a key state’s witness in Case 4000, the most serious of the three cases against the former prime minister.

Attorneys for Netanyahu and other defendants in the case have demanded to know exactly what data was obtained, how it was used and whether others involved in the trial were also targeted in the operation, among other questions. Prosecutors have said they are examining the matter.

Thursday reports said the revelations could delay the trial since Filber’s testimony is set to begin in two weeks.

The alleged phone hacking could also impact the trial in other ways, analysts said.

Channel 12 reported Thursday night that Filber’s phone was accessed in 2017, and had the entirety of its content drained using unnamed spyware. The network said that the discovery that Filber’s phone had been targeted was made in the course of an unrelated investigation, ordered by the attorney general, into alleged police abuse of the controversial NSO Group’s Pegasus software, but that a different technology was used to access Filber’s phone.

Then-prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu (left) sitting with then-PMO chief of staff Shlomo Filber, on February 21, 2018 (Screenshot/Channel 12 news)

Police brass reportedly told justice officials that the data was downloaded accidentally and was never given to investigators in the Netanyahu cases, Channel 13 news reported.

According to Channel 13, after news broke of police allegedly misusing Pegasus, Netanyahu’s attorneys asked the Justice Ministry if it knew of any cases of such abuse related to the former prime minister’s graft trial.

According to the report, police “misled” the ministry for two weeks when asked whether it had used penetrative technology to drain Filber’s phone, and in general, without prior approval.

Only in recent days did police say there was actually a case in which phone data was accessed from someone involved in the Netanyahu trial without approval — the case of Filber.

Netanyahu on Wednesday evening called the revelations an “earthquake.”

Likud’s faction chair Yariv Levin termed them “a giant Watergate affair, here in Israel” and called for the Netanyahu trial to be shut down.

A logo adorns a wall on a branch of the Israeli NSO Group company, near the southern Israeli town of Sapir, August 24, 2021. (Sebastian Scheiner/AP)

Police said in a statement Thursday that they would continue to “cooperate fully and transparently” with the investigation team appointed by the attorney general, which is looking into reports that it repeatedly used hacking software from the NSO Group and others to break into citizens’ phones illegally.

Netanyahu is on trial in three cases, having been indicted for fraud and breach of trust in cases 1000 and 2000, and for bribery, fraud and breach of trust in Case 4000. He denies all wrongdoing and claims the charges were fabricated by a biased police force and state prosecution, led by a weak attorney general, backed by leftist politicians and the media.

Case 4000, the most serious of the three cases against the former prime minister, alleges that Netanyahu advanced regulatory decisions as communications minister and prime minister that immensely benefited Walla owner Shaul Elovitch, the controlling shareholder in Bezeq, the country’s largest telecommunications firm, despite opposition from the Communication Ministry’s career officials. In exchange, he allegedly was given what amounted to editorial control over Elovitch’s Walla news site.

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