Ex-ministry chiefs demand state commission to probe police wiretap claims

Shai Babad, Keren Terner and Emi Palmor — all alleged to have been hacked — call for deletion of any material obtained; state comptroller also to look into alleged spyware abuse

From left to right: Keren Terner Eyal, former director general of the Transportation Ministry; former Justice Ministry director general Emi Palmor; and Shai Babad, the former director general of the Finance Ministry. (Flash90)
From left to right: Keren Terner Eyal, former director general of the Transportation Ministry; former Justice Ministry director general Emi Palmor; and Shai Babad, the former director general of the Finance Ministry. (Flash90)

Three former ministerial directors general, all of whom according to a bombshell report had their phones hacked by the Israel Police, called on the government on Tuesday to establish a state inquiry to look into the explosive claims.

Former Finance Ministry chief Shai Babad, former Transportation Ministry chief Keren Terner Eyal and former Justice Ministry chief Emi Palmor were among those named in a report by Calcalist alleging that police used the NSO Group’s Pegasus spyware, without judicial approval, to hack into the phones of government officials, mayors, activists, journalists, and family members and advisers of former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Other names included were 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.

In a letter addressed to Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, Justice Minister Gideon Sa’ar, Public Security Minister Omer Barlev and newly appointed Attorney General Gali Baharav-Miara, the former directors general said they were filled with “feelings of insult, humiliation and helplessness in the face of our basic rights being so severely trampled,” and called for all materials obtained from their phones to be deleted immediately.

“In light of the seriousness of the matter, you are requested, in accordance with your powers, to act as follows: establish a state commission of inquiry,” the letter said.

“Materials and information in the possession of the police will be destroyed immediately,” they continued. “We demand the immediate execution of a court order prohibiting any possession, use, processing, transfer, publication, browsing, disclosure, etc. Please seek an immediate detailed explanation as to whether the police did indeed use spyware or did any other act of searching and wiretapping our phones.”

Their letter follows similar calls by ministers and lawmakers on Monday also demanding the establishment of a state inquiry to look into claims.

In an interview with Channel 12 on Monday, Palmor stressed that there was no remotely conceivable legitimate reason for her to have been targeted, and said she was horrified by the reports. “I’ve never been investigated. Nobody around me has ever been investigated. Not personally, not family, not professionally. I don’t have the beginning of a notion… of a connection to any investigation,” she said.

Then Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked (R) and then Justice Ministry director-general Emi Palmor at the opening of a seminar with the European Union in Jerusalem on February 20, 2017. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Palmor struggled to find a reason why she might have targeted. As director-general of the Justice Ministry, she recalled, “I was in charge of 7,000 people…. including the state prosecution… I was tasked to chair the panel that looked into racism against Israelis of Ethiopian origin and checked the behavior of the police and the prosecution and the PID. What can you do, it was necessary to issue criticisms and to suggest a plan of action, that was then approved by the government, designed to change the police’s behavior. The idea that those things…. somehow constitute the beginning of a reason [for me to be targeted]? Very scary.”

“I was in shock [when I read the newspaper],” she added. “The idea that senior police officers with whom I am in contact know personal things about me… is a very unpleasant thought… I very much hope that it is not true. We have no other police force.”

Babad told Army Radio that if the claims are true, “this is a sad day for Israeli democracy. This is a serious violation of privacy and of public officials.” Babad said he never expected to be followed or spied on, “and definitely not by the police.”

State Comptroller Matanyahu Englman speaks during a Conference of the ‘Besheva’ group in Jerusalem, on February 7, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Also on Tuesday, State Comptroller Matanyahu Englman said that if the spyware allegations were true, the activity constituted “trampling on the values of democracy and privacy.”

Speaking at a conference hosted by the Israeli newspaper B’Sheva, the state watchdog said his office is looking into the alleged use of the spyware, as well as the conduct of the State Prosecutor’s Office and the Justice Ministry.

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