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Netanyahu lawyers expected to seek delay of key testimony over phone hacking scandal

State’s witness Shlomo Filber reportedly had data illicitly siphoned off device; Kan: Prosecutors believe hacking did not affect case evidence

Former Communications Ministry Director-General Shlomo Filber at a Knesset committee meeting, on July 24, 2016. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Former Communications Ministry Director-General Shlomo Filber at a Knesset committee meeting, on July 24, 2016. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Attorneys of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the former owner of both Bezeq and the Walla news site, Shaul Elovitch, are expected to request a delay in the testimony of state’s witness Shlomo Filber in Netanyahu’s criminal trial, according to Hebrew media reports Saturday.

This follows revelations that Filber, the ex-director-general of the Communications Ministry, apparently had his phone illicitly hacked by police during the investigation into Case 4000.

But Kan news reported that so far, prosecutors believe any improper use of spyware technology was not tied to evidence used in the case.

Case 4000 is the most serious of the three cases against the former prime minister. Netanyahu is alleged to have advanced regulatory decisions as communications minister and prime minister that immensely benefited Walla owner Elovitch, who was also the controlling shareholder in Bezeq, the country’s largest telecommunications firm, despite opposition from the Communication Ministry’s career officials. In exchange, he allegedly was given what amounted to editorial control over Elovitch’s Walla site.

Police and prosecutors are currently checking whether Filber’s phone was indeed hacked without court authorization, and whether any extracted data was shared with investigators in Netanyahu’s cases.

They are also checking whether any other individuals tied to the investigations were hacked.

Opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu at the Knesset, on January 5, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

On Saturday Channel 12 published quotes it said showed an investigator for the Israel Securities Authority apparently indicating to Filber that advanced spyware capabilities may have been utilized against him. But the ISA later denied this, saying the phone was seized and searched with a regular warrant when Filber was questioned as a suspect in the Bezeq affair in 2017.

“We have… software that is a generation ahead of the NSA,” the ISA investigator said, according to an interrogation transcription published by Channel 12, referring to the US National Security Agency.

“I want you to understand, the knowledge I have about your world, your life… is thorough,” the investigator said according to the transcription. Filber was questioned by the Securities Authorities months before police first questioned him, and long before he turned state’s witness.

“I can click on a person and see everything, I can see what you deleted, when you deleted, why you deleted, I can see everything,” the investigator said, according to the transcript.

The Israel Securities Authority denied the network’s assertion that the comments referred to Filber’s phone having been remotely accessed with spyware. An ISA spokeswoman said the phone was never bugged or hacked, but rather was searched with an official warrant.

“The transcript in question relates to an investigation from July 2017 as part of the Bezeq case… There was no use of wiretapping in the case at all, and Shlomo Filber’s mobile device was confiscated and searched under the authority of a standard search warrant, as is regularly done in criminal probes,” she said.

Hebrew TV reports Friday claimed that other prominent figures involved in former prime minister Netanyahu’s criminal trial likely had their phones hacked by police investigators.

Channel 13 reported that Elovitch “apparently” had his phone targeted by police spyware.

Channel 12 quoted an unnamed senior police official saying that an unspecified number of other people connected to the Netanyahu cases were targeted by police using spyware.

“The State Prosecutor’s Office was aware. It’s not just Filber. There are others, and everything was done with the approval and authorization [of the state prosecution],” the official was quoted saying, contradicting anonymous prosecution officials who have been quoted in recent days claiming that police investigators illicitly used phone hacking software without their knowledge.

Still, the network stressed on Saturday that while there were indications that police had used spyware tools beyond the judicial authority they were granted, there are currently no signs that this was sanctioned by senior police echelons or the state prosecution.

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

Reports on Wednesday and Thursday that police in 2017 drained all the data from Filber’s phone have prompted the Jerusalem District Court, where Netanyahu is standing trial, to order state prosecutors to answer defense lawyers’ questions about the alleged abuse by Tuesday.

The court decided not to delay the next scheduled trial hearing on Monday. Filber’s testimony is due to begin in about two weeks’ time.

Netanyahu on Wednesday evening called the revelations an “earthquake.” The faction leader of his Likud party, MK Yariv Levin, termed them “a giant Watergate affair, here in Israel” and called for the Netanyahu trial to be shut down.

Channels 12 and 13 both said the spyware reportedly used was either the NSO Group’s controversial Pegasus program or similar software.

Illustrative photo of an Android smartphone. (Screenshot/YouTube)

It is not clear at this stage whether any data removed from Filber’s phone was conveyed to the Netanyahu investigators, whether it was obtained with the necessary judicial authorization, and how profoundly the matter will impact the trial.

Channel 12 had reported Thursday night that the discovery that Filber’s phone had been targeted was made in the course of an unrelated investigation, ordered by the attorney general into alleged police abuse of the Pegasus software, but that a different technology was used to access Filber’s phone.

It is also unclear whether police have more widely used the spyware in an illicit manner in recent years.

Channel 12 said police have had hacking technology capable of draining all of the data on a phone since 2014 and have used it in hundreds of cases.

The same network also reported that a criminal investigation into all use of phone-hacking spyware by investigators is likely. At the moment, the matter is being probed by deputy attorney general Amit Merari. Police said in a statement Thursday that they would continue to “cooperate fully and transparently” with Merari’s team.

Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai has reportedly ordered officers to go over every case in which the spyware was used in order to determine whether any laws were broken. He and other senior officers had previously denied there were any instances of police abuse of spyware in investigations.

Police chief Kobi Shabtai visits a roadblock outside Jerusalem during a COVID-19 lockdown, on January 8, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Also Friday, Channel 13 reported that former attorney general Avichai Mandelblit blocked an effort by Public Security Minister Omer Barlev to establish an official government inquiry into the police’s use of NSO spyware against Israeli civilians, as was revealed last month by the Calcalist business daily. Senior ministers told the network that such an inquiry would likely take place eventually given the severity of the allegations. Mandelblit retired this week after six years in the post.

Netanyahu is on trial in three cases, having been indicted for fraud and breach of trust in cases 1000 and 2000, and for bribery, fraud and breach of trust in Case 4000. He denies all wrongdoing and claims the charges were fabricated by a biased police force and state prosecution, led by a weak attorney general, backed by leftist politicians and the media.

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