Cyber entrepreneur says Netanyahu behind ‘Iranian hack’ of Gantz

Former Labor MK Erel Margalit warns of ‘clear and immediate’ threat to elections by ‘outside actors’

Then-MK Erel Margalit speaks at a conference he organized in Tel Aviv on May 22, 2016. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)
Then-MK Erel Margalit speaks at a conference he organized in Tel Aviv on May 22, 2016. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

A former Labor lawmaker and noted tech entrepreneur has claimed that the purported Iranian hack of Benny Gantz’s phone is a cover story for a planned Likud leak campaign against the Blue and White party leader.

“This is what’s going to happen with the story of Gantz’s phone: It’s just a cover story. In a few days more information will start coming out about it, that the Iranians are allegedly putting out through third parties, and then the Netanyahu campaign will just ‘make use’ of this information,” Erel Margalit wrote on Facebook on Friday.

The initial report about the hack was carried Thursday by Channel 12, which said Iranian intelligence had managed to gain access to Gantz’s cellphone and all its contents. A follow-up report on Saturday night said that no sensitive security information had been housed on Gantz’s phone at the time of the breach, but speculated that embarrassing information could have been obtained on the prime ministerial candidate.

“They did this to Hillary Clinton, they did it in Brexit in Britain, and they did it to Macron in France,” said Margalit, a prominent investor in cybersecurity companies and former leading member of a Knesset subcommittee on cyber defense.

“I warned over and over about this — specifically, about a month ago — that there is a clear and immediate danger of harm being done to Israel’s elections by outside actors that will link up with domestic actors,” he said.

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

Margalit put the blame squarely on the prime minister — though he offered no evidence of Benjamin Netanyahu’s involvement.

Netanyahu, he noted, was the sole minister in charge of Israel’s civilian cyber defense, which was centralized in 2016 under the Prime Minister’s Office’s National Cyber Directorate.

“The transfer of all access to data and data security from the Shin Bet to the National Cyber Directorate, which is directly subordinate to Netanyahu alone, is a dangerous situation,” he said. “It has to be said clearly: As of now, Israel’s civilian cyber defense mechanism is directly subordinate to a political actor under investigation [for corruption], an actor suspected of involvement in bribery who has shown he has no compunctions. The public doesn’t grasp the gravity of this danger.”

Margalit noted he has “been involved in cyber for years. I know the individuals involved. I sat in the classified committees. I’m the biggest investor in cyber in Israel, and I know well the capabilities of [Israeli cyber] companies.”

And he warned: “Gantz’s phone is just the beginning. A perfect cover story. It’s not the last time [the phone] will be ringing with deeply damaging information. The battle over our democracy begins now.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends a Likud faction meeting at the Menachem Begin Heritage Center in Jerusalem on March 11, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Likud has denied involvement in the leak about the reported hack, saying in a Saturday night campaign video that the attempt to blame the prime minister for the leak was meant “to distract from the fact that the Iranian regime openly supports” Gantz’s candidacy.

In a Saturday night letter to Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit, Gantz’s Blue and White party seemed to echo Margalit’s warning, asking the attorney general to “order the prime minister, who oversees the National Cyber Directorate, to act within the bounds of his legal obligations, and avoid making personal and political use of agencies under his purview or [intelligence] information placed before him.”

The letter accused Netanyahu of orchestrating the leak in an act that constitutes “the most severe breach of trust,” charging that “there is a series of indications that trace a path for the ‘leak’ to a very specific office in Jerusalem.” It also claims there are “a growing number of indications that this won’t be a one-time ‘leak.’”

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