Gantz demands AG probe whether Netanyahu leaked Iran phone hack claims

Likud claims Tehran ‘openly supports’ Blue and White leader, whose running mate Lapid says PM ‘lies when he breathes’

Benny Gantz at the launch of his Israel Resilience party's Knesset list, in Tel Aviv on February 19, 2019. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)
Benny Gantz at the launch of his Israel Resilience party's Knesset list, in Tel Aviv on February 19, 2019. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

The Blue and White party has asked the attorney general to investigate a report last week that claimed Iran had hacked into party leader Benny Gantz’s cellphone and collected purportedly compromising information on him.

Gantz, a former chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces, has called the leak “political gossip,” noting that the Likud party was jumping on the news as fodder for campaign videos.

Blue and White also noted in the three days since the initial Thursday report that if it was accurate, the information could only have come from intelligence agencies or the civilian National Cyber Directorate, all of which are under the Prime Minister’s Office.

“Given that the ‘hack’ reportedly took place a long time ago, and given that it’s inconceivable that a source in the security services would leak details about an alleged ‘Iranian hack,’ and noting the timing of the ‘leak’ [in the middle of an election campaign] — it was clearly done by someone who has access to sensitive defense information and possesses an interest in harming Gantz,” the party charged in an official appeal to Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit on Saturday night.

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 claimed there are “a growing number of indications that this won’t be a one-time ‘leak.'”

Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit speaks during a conference at the national library in Jerusalem on June 6, 2018. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

It asked 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.”

And it demanded “a swift, comprehensive and determined inquiry to discover the source of the ‘leak.'”

Netanyahu and his Likud party have roundly denied the accusations, 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.

The initial Thursday report on Channel 12 news said that Iranian intelligence had hacked Gantz’s personal cellphone and obtained access to all its contents.

A follow-up report on Saturday night said that no sensitive security information was housed on Gantz’s phone at the time of the breach.

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

The reports cited unnamed security officials.

After the news broke, Shin Bet chief Nadav Argaman said his agency had not briefed Netanyahu about any such hack.

But Blue and White said the information likely came from the Mossad intelligence agency, now headed by Netanyahu’s former national security adviser Yossi Cohen, and from the National Cyber Directorate, which Netanyahu founded and oversees as part of the Prime Minister’s Office.

In the days since the report, Likud’s campaign has pivoted from accusing Gantz of being a “leftist” to arguing that he is the preferred candidate of the regime in Tehran.

The Saturday night Likud ad quoted a February report in Iran’s state radio propaganda broadcasts in Hebrew.

Head of the Shin Bet security service Nadav Argaman attends the Defense and Foreign Affairs Committee meeting at the Knesset on November 6, 2018. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

“Former chief of staff Benny Gantz has presented a real leadership alternative to Benjamin Netanyahu,” the Iranian broadcaster is heard saying. “Hopefully, he will succeed in this mission.”

Likud has also claimed that Tehran prefers Gantz and Blue and White no. 2 Yair Lapid because they purportedly supported the 2015 nuclear deal between Iran and six world powers, whereas Netanyahu fought against it.

In fact, Lapid opposed the 2015 accord, but argued after it was finalized that it was unwise to antagonize the Obama administration that had championed it. Similarly, Gantz was not enthusiastic about the agreement, but after it was signed, 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.”

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 don’t teach us about leadership, and certainly not about national responsibility.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (top right) meets with security brass at the IDF’s Kirya military headquarters in Tel Aviv on March 14, 2019. (Ariel Hermoni/Defense Ministry)

On Saturday night, Lapid accused Netanyahu of “spinning” the phone hack story to distract attention from the corruption allegations against him, from criticism of his Gaza policy amid a new round of tensions with Hamas, 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, Lapid insisted, and now “he’s sitting in his office laughing and laughing.”

In its Thursday report, Channel 12 said that Gantz was approached five weeks ago by officials from the Shin Bet who informed him that his personal phone had been hacked by Iran following his formal entry into politics in December.

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 chief of staff.

Blue and White’s Moshe Ya’alon is seen during a visit to the Gaza border area with other members of the party on March 13, 2019. (Flash90)

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 had 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 debased the political system and is willing to sacrifice all other values for political survival,” Ya’alon said in an interview with Channel 13 news.

Pressed on whether he was suggesting the Shin Bet had 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.”

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.

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