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Liberman hosts US deputy treasury secretary in Jerusalem

Finance minister meets with Wally Adeyemo, treasury officials for talks on trade, cybersecurity; sit-down comes week after US blacklists Israeli spyware firms

Ricky Ben-David is The Times of Israel’s Startups and Business editor and reporter.

Israeli Finance Minister Avigdor Liberman (right) meets with Wally Adeyemo, the deputy secretary of the US treasury, in Jerusalem on November 14, 2021. (Finance Ministry spokesperson's office)
Israeli Finance Minister Avigdor Liberman (right) meets with Wally Adeyemo, the deputy secretary of the US treasury, in Jerusalem on November 14, 2021. (Finance Ministry spokesperson's office)

Finance Minister Avigdor Liberman met with the visiting US deputy secretary of the treasury, Wally Adeyemo, at the ministry’s headquarters in Jerusalem on Sunday for talks on US-Israeli economic ties, trade, and cybersecurity.

Finance Ministry Director-General Ram Blinkov, Chief Economist Shira Greenberg, director of Finance Ministry budgets Yogev Gardos, and other ministry officials joined the meeting, as did Treasury officials who accompanied Adeyemo on the trip.

In their meeting, Liberman and Adeyemo discussed cooperation between the Finance Ministry and the US Treasury to strengthen their respective economies and regional economic development, according to a ministry announcement.

“I thank our US ally for the many years of strong support and partnership, and I am sure that the economic ties between us will only become stronger. We will continue to strengthen our significant activity on the issues of trade, financial cybersecurity, and information exchange to continue to establish the cooperation between us as a strategic anchor,” Liberman said, in a press statement sent by the Finance Ministry.

Adeyemo also met with Bank of Israel Governor Amir Yaron in Jerusalem later Sunday.

Adeyemo is on a trip to a series of countries in the Middle East with planned stops in Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Qatar for discussions on building cooperation on cybersecurity and ransomware, countering terrorist financing, and post-COVID economic recovery, the Treasury has said.

Finance Ministry officials headed by Avigdor Liberman host Wally Adeyemo, the deputy sectetary of the US treasury, and treasury officials in Jerusalem on Sunday, November 14, 2021. (Finance Ministry spokesperson’s office)

The regional trip came on the heels of a series of ransomware attacks in the US this year targeting critical infrastructure, food manufacturers, a police department, the NBA, and private industry companies.

Cybersecurity and ransomware

Last week, the US Treasury announced a series of measures focused on “disrupting criminal ransomware actors and virtual currency exchanges that launder the proceeds of ransomware.”

The Treasury said ransomware payments in the US reached $590 million in the first half of 2021, compared to a total of $416 million in 2020.

Last Monday, the Justice Department said it charged two foreign nationals, one from Russia and one from Ukraine, with deploying ransomware to attack businesses and government entities in the US. Officials said they seized $6.1 million “in funds traceable to alleged ransom payments,” from one of the suspects.

“Cyber threats are a concern for every American, every business regardless of size, and every community,” US President Joe Biden said in response to the Treasury’s announced sanctions and the Justice Department’s arrests.

“Ransomware groups and criminal organizations have targeted American businesses and public institutions of all sizes and across sectors, seeking to undermine the backbone of our economy,” Adeyemo said in a statement at the time. “We will continue to bring to bear all of the authorities at Treasury’s disposal to disrupt, deter, and prevent future threats to the economy of the United States. This is a top priority for the Biden Administration.”

Adeyemo’s visit to Israel came more than a week after the US Department of Commerce blacklisted two Israeli phone spyware companies, NSO Group and Candiru, adding them to the list of foreign companies that engage in malicious cyber activities.

NSO Group and the lesser-known Candiru, considered its competitor in the cyber-surveillance market, were accused of providing spyware software to governments that was ultimately turned on journalists and activists.

A branch of the Israeli NSO Group company, near the southern Israeli town of Sapir, on August 24, 2021. (AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner)

The Israeli companies “were added to the Entity List based on evidence that these entities developed and supplied spyware to foreign governments that used these tools to maliciously target government officials, journalists, businesspeople, activists, academics, and embassy workers,” according to a Commerce Department statement.

In response, NSO Group reportedly sought support from Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, claiming in a letter that it was being targeted for political reasons in a campaign by anti-Israel organizations. The letter was also sent to Defense Minister Benny Gantz, Foreign Minister Yair Lapid and Liberman.

NSO Group has faced a torrent of international criticism over allegations it helps governments spy on dissidents and rights activists. NSO insists its product is meant only to assist countries in fighting crime and terrorism.

The firm’s flagship spyware, Pegasus, is considered one of the most powerful cyber-surveillance tools available on the market, giving operators the ability to effectively take full control of a target’s phone, download all data from the device or activate its camera or microphone without the user knowing.

In the latest in a string of accusations against NSO Group, independent investigations published last week by the University of Toronto and Amnesty International found that cellphones belonging to at least six Palestinian rights activists were hacked using Pegasus.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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