Ministers back calls for state commission to probe police spyware allegations

Bennett backs using the tech to fight terror, crime, but stresses need for regulation, training; Lapid: Ex-Likud justice minister Ohana should be grilled first over alleged misuse

In this file photo taken on August 28, 2016, an Israeli woman uses her iPhone in front of the building housing the Israeli NSO group, in Herzliya, near Tel Aviv. (Jack Guez/AFP)
In this file photo taken on August 28, 2016, an Israeli woman uses her iPhone in front of the building housing the Israeli NSO group, in Herzliya, near Tel Aviv. (Jack Guez/AFP)

Ministers and lawmakers on Monday called for the establishment of a state inquiry to look into explosive claims that the Israel Police conducted extensive extrajudicial spying against dozens of public officials, activists and citizens.

Their comments came in the wake of a bombshell Calcalist report 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.

According to the Monday report, police used the software to hack into the phones of the then-directors general of the finance, justice, communication and transportation ministries; 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.

The alleged abuse of spyware was condemned by a wide range of lawmakers and public officials across the political spectrum, who called the report disturbing and deeply concerning.

During a cabinet meeting, Justice Minister Gideon Sa’ar said a state commission of inquiry should be established into the scandal.

Police Minister Omer Barlev, who just hours earlier announced the creation of a government commission to explore the claims, said Monday afternoon that he agreed with Sa’ar on the need for a state inquiry, which constitutes a stronger probe.

Public Security Minister Omer Barlev visits a business that was a victim of protection racket, in the upper Galilee, between Rosh Pina and Kiryat Shmona, August 11, 2021. (Basel Awidat/Flash90)

Speaking to reporters, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett defended the use of the spyware to fight terrorism and serious crime but emphasized that it must be regulated and police officers must be properly trained in its use.

“You want a tool like that when fighting crime families and serious crime. I do not want to give up the tool itself, but to regulate its use,” he said.

Bennett said that while Pegasus and other similar spyware programs “are important tools in the fight against terror and serious crime, they are not intended for widespread ‘fishing’ among Israeli citizens or public figures in the State of Israel, so we need to understand exactly what happened.”

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett holds a press conference at the Kirya military base in Tel Aviv, January 11, 2022. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

Bennett added that he will consult newly appointed Attorney General Gali Baharav-Miara on how to deal with the issue. “We understand the seriousness of the matter. We will not leave it unanswered,” he concluded.

Finance Minister Avigdor Liberman backed the formation of a state inquiry commission, saying he wanted to probe whether spying tech was used by police against him when he was investigated over a decade ago.

Liberman was charged with breach of trust and fraud in 2012, but eventually was cleared of any wrongdoing.

“Anyone who knows the facts knows that we’re talking about serious violations done back then, and the police commissioner acted like the worst of the criminals. There was no law he did not break,” he charged.

Liberman said that, if true, the allegations would be “a magnitude-9 earthquake.”

Yisrael Beytenu party chairman Finance Minister Avigdor Liberman speaks during a faction meeting at the Knesset, in Jerusalem, on January 10, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Foreign Minister Yair Lapid said that a commission of inquiry should be established by the end of this week, adding that the first person to be investigated by the commission should be Likud MK Amir Ohana, who was justice minister from June 2019 to May 2020 and then public security minister until June of last year.

“There is such a thing as ministerial responsibility. It happened on their shift. They need to give answers to the public,” he said.

Lapid, too, defended the police, saying, “Only criminals will be happy if they are dismantled.”

Foreign Minister Yair Lapid speaks during a press conference in Jerusalem on November 6, 2021. (Ohad Zwigenberg/POOL)

“But along with that, gatekeepers of the law need to be the ones who keep the rules better than anyone. Nobody is immune from investigation,” he said, adding that the scandal “clouds Israeli democracy.”

Responding to Lapid, Ohana said that he “has nothing to hide.”

“Let’s both go get a polygraph: me about NSO, and you about your conversations with [Yedioth Ahronoth publisher Arnon Mozes], who was blacked out of your meeting schedule so nobody would know,” he said, according to Hebrew media, calling the top diplomat a “hollow scarecrow.”

Likud MK Amir Ohana attends a Knesset committee meeting, December 13, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Likud MK Yariv Levin called on the opposition to rally around President Isaac Herzog and urge him to appoint a state commission into the allegations, which he said “every citizen should lose sleep over.”

“This is not a right or left issue. This is abuse, in a terrible way, of the immense power given to law enforcement. Their job is to protect democratic society, not to destroy it and create a situation in which we live under shadowy regimes,” he said.

Speaking at a conference Monday morning, Herzog said he felt compelled to comment on the allegations.

“The law enforcement system cannot be careless when upholding the law,” Herzog said. “Those who enforce the law must be meticulous, more than anyone, in all aspects. We cannot lose our democracy, we cannot lose our police and we certainly cannot lose public trust in them.”

Herzog said the allegations demand “an in-depth and thorough investigation.”

Israel Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai speaks during a ceremony in Nazareth on November 9, 2021. (Michael Giladi/Flash90)

Notably, Netanyahu did not comment on the allegations during a faction meeting of his Likud party.

Earlier Monday, Israel Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai called for an external investigation into the claims.

“In light of the recent reports regarding the Israel Police operation of technological systems in the years before I took office, I requested that the public security minister order the establishment of an external and independent judicial review committee, headed by a judge, to examine the issue in all its aspects,” Shabtai said in a statement.

The goal of such a probe, he said, “is both to restore public trust in the Israel Police and to regulate the use of technologies in the Israel Police.”

Shabtai, who took office in January 2021, vowed that any “failures and irregularities” uncovered by the investigation “will be dealt with in accordance with the law.”

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