Prime ministerial hopeful Benny Gantz on Friday dismissed news of the hacking of his cellphone by Iran as “political gossip” and suggested that publication of the story this week was timed to distract public attention from ongoing violence in the Gaza Strip. His party allies directly accused Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of being behind the leak.
Gantz was speaking at a press conference in the Gaza border area, where he criticized Netanyahu’s policies toward the Palestinian enclave after two rockets were fired toward the Tel Aviv metropolitan area Thursday evening.
“We’re in the middle of an ongoing security incident… and someone all of a sudden puts out a story that is complete hallucinatory political gossip,” said the Blue and White party leader.
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.
“The phone isn’t the story,” Gantz continued. “There was no threat against me, there is no security information there [in the phone], and I am not subject to blackmail in any way.”
“Someone is pushing this spin, and turning the real problem into one that does not exist.”
Channel 12 news first reported Thursday that Gantz, a former military chief, was approached five weeks ago by officials from the Shin Bet security service 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 IDF chief of staff.
Ahead of the press conference, the party put out a statement saying the timing of the story’s publication was meant to harm Gantz ahead of general elections on April 9 and suggesting Netanyahu was behind it.
“Gantz is the leading candidate to be Israel’s prime minister and it is clear to every citizen and intelligent person that the timing of the leak wasn’t coincidental,” Blue and White said.
“The briefings [to the media] by Netanyahu’s associates began last night and the wholesale spreading of lies proves beyond a doubt who is beyond this story and why,” it added.
Yair Lapid and Moshe Ya’alon, numbers two and four respectively on Blue and White’s electoral list, later directly accused Netanyahu of orchestrating the leak.
“It’s a political event, not a security event,” Ya’alon told Channel 13 Friday night. “The prime minister, in order to survive politically, is burning everything.”
“Bibi’s use of sensitive diplomatic materials to try to slander Benny Gantz proves he is scared of him. He is right to be scared,” Lapid wrote on Twitter, using Netanyahu’s nickname.
Gabi Ashkenazi, another Blue and White leader, said if Netanyahu was “concerned and worried about cybersecurity” he should order an investigation into the leak.
“Instead of talking about the security situation, we’re talking about Benny’s phone,” Ashkenazi told Channel 12.
Ashkenazi said Gantz told him about the hacked phone on Thursday. At his press conference, Gantz indicated that he had not told Lapid about the phone hack before the two agreed last month to merge their parties for a joint Knesset run. Lapid, Yaalon and Ashkenazi “were not informed of the breach until shortly before Thursday’s television report,” Blue and White officials told the New York Times on Friday. “Yair and the others aren’t relevant to this story,” Gantz said.
Netanyahu’s office said neither the prime minister nor any of his aides were briefed by Shin Bet chief Nadav Argaman on the hacking of Gantz’s phone. His Likud Party also denied any involvement.
“Whoever is trying to hint this came from the Prime Minister’s Office doesn’t know the system,” Likud MK and former Shin Bet head Avi Dichter told Channel 12. “This type of information doesn’t go to the prime minister.”
At the press conference, his first since entering politics, Gantz also criticized Netanyahu over what he said was a loss of deterrence vis-à-vis Hamas, the Islamist terror group that rules Gaza.
“[Israel has] a demolished deterrence. The agenda is being set, unfortunately, not by the State of Israel but Yahya Sinwar and factions in Gaza,” he said, referring to the leader of Hamas in Gaza.
“We must return to be the initiators. To adopt a tough and long-term policy that will cause Hamas to want to return to total calm,” Gantz added. “What we are witnessing is a loss of security. It must, and urgently, be returned here.”
The retired general said the unrest in Gaza was one of two key threats that Israel is facing.
“There are two hugely significant events here, and I suggest that no one blur them. There is a war over our home, and another about democracy and ethics … I know that I am to pay a hard price [for having entered politics]. I know that I am playing against people whose ethical boundaries are at rock bottom,” he said.
Gantz’s press conference was broadcast by television networks on a 10-minute delay following a petition from Likud to the Central Elections Committee to ensure it contained no electioneering.
A speech by Netanyahu earlier this month was similarly delayed after the Labor Party petitioned the elections committee.