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Op-edHeavy shadow over process that led Netanyahu to trial

If true, spyware report shows a police force gone rogue, trampling Israeli democracy

Latest allegations point to cops reveling in their technological capacity to gather endless data on anyone they please; powerful, independent investigation is urgently needed

David Horovitz

David Horovitz is the founding editor of The Times of Israel. He is the author of "Still Life with Bombers" (2004) and "A Little Too Close to God" (2000), and co-author of "Shalom Friend: The Life and Legacy of Yitzhak Rabin" (1996). He previously edited The Jerusalem Post (2004-2011) and The Jerusalem Report (1998-2004).

Then-police commissioner Roni Alsheich (right) with then-commander of the Border Police (the current police chief) Kobi Shabtai at a press conference near Jerusalem, March 27, 2018. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Then-police commissioner Roni Alsheich (right) with then-commander of the Border Police (the current police chief) Kobi Shabtai at a press conference near Jerusalem, March 27, 2018. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

If true, the unsourced report in Monday morning’s Calcalist newspaper, alleging widespread illegal use of spyware by Israel Police against what seems to be broadly anyone with whom the police had issues, exposes a devastating abuse of Israeli democracy.

Several days of reports on the alleged abuse have already deeply undermined confidence in the integrity of the process by which allegations of corruption against then-prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu were investigated. Monday’s further report widens the concerns over the case — which Netanyahu has always argued was a politicized and ultimately successful attempt to remove him and the right from power — and darkens the shadow over the entire path by which he was brought to trial.

The latest report in Calcalist — a business newspaper owned by the Yedioth Ahronoth group, which is headed by fellow Netanyahu trial defendant Arnon Mozes — alleges further misuse of spyware against key figures related to Netanyahu.

But the scale and scope of the reported illicit activity point far more broadly too, across the political spectrum and beyond it.

Several senior police figures last week furiously denied the notion of any illicit use of spyware, much less widespread abuse, before the police vaguely acknowledged in a statement that they had “additional findings” on the matter that “change things, in certain aspects.”

Monday’s Calcalist report, however, points to a police force gone rogue, reveling in its technological capacity to gather endless data on anyone it pleased, targeting all manner of people who crossed its radar and with whom it took issue — from leaders of demonstrations (including for the rights of the disabled, and against Netanyahu), to local council chiefs, journalists, ministry directors-general (including Emi Palmor, the former Justice Ministry director general who helmed a panel investigating racism against Israelis of Ethiopian origin that criticized police), other civil servants and more. “There is not the remotest possible justification for this,” said Palmor. “It’s beyond shocking. I very much hope that it’s not true.”

Many central details have yet to emerge, including such basic aspects of the allegations as precisely when the alleged abuses began and ended (if they ended) and under the aegises of which police chiefs, and how much the state prosecution establishment knew about what was going on.

The reports thus far point to alleged abuse including during the 2015-2018 period when Roni Alsheich was police commissioner; a Netanyahu appointee who went on to helm the investigation of Netanyahu, Alsheich came to the force as an outsider — from the Shin Bet, Israel’s domestic security agency, where he was a deputy head.

Because of the extraordinary sensitivity of building a case against a serving prime minister, newly departed attorney general Avichai Mandelblit was personally responsible for the oversight of the police investigation of Netanyahu, and would doubtless, therefore, have needed to know where the evidence was coming from. If there was abuse of the kind now being alleged, it must be asked, why didn’t he know about it? Or did he?

Again, the “if” is critical. As of this writing, sources in the state prosecution have told reporters that no illicitly obtained evidence was utilized in the case against Netanyahu; the Jerusalem District Court has given the prosecution until Tuesday to formally respond to the revelations.

The overall alleged abuse, however, urgently requires a much deeper probe — by an independent state commission.

Rejecting defense attorneys’ call for the Netanyahu trial to be halted until the latest allegations are clarified, the judges on Monday noted that, thus far, the devastating reports of spyware illegalities are still just that: reports.

If they prove even broadly accurate, however, they show Israeli democracy “on the slippery slope toward collapse,” as the former director general of the Finance Ministry Shai Babad said sadly on Monday morning. And yes, Babad was one of those many Israelis, not known to be suspected of illegal misdeeds, who was reportedly illicitly targeted with spyware by the police.

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