Netanyahu rails against cops over spyware claims: Like IDF bombing Israeli civilians

Opposition laments latest bombshell report as a ‘dark day’ for Israel, demands urgent investigation that must have backing from coalition and opposition

Opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during a Knesset plenum session on February 7, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
Opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during a Knesset plenum session on February 7, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday decried alleged illicit police phone hacking, including of his son and figures involved in his trial, as a “dark day for the state of Israel.”

“This matter concerns all Israeli citizens, not just right or left,” he told the Knesset plenum.

“Something inconceivable has happened here. Elements in the police illegally spied, using the most aggressive tools in the world, on countless citizens — journalists, social activists from right and left, mayors, businesspeople, politicians and their families,” the former premier said.

“They exposed citizens, followed them, listened in on them, and got into their most buried secrets. Who knows what improprieties they used it for? A spying application meant to be used against terror and to fight our enemies turned into an everyday tool for police to spy on civilians, in violation of every law and norm,” he added.

His comments came in the wake of an explosive report Monday morning by the Calcalist business daily alleging that police used the NSO Group’s Pegasus spyware to hack into the phones of government officials, mayors, activists, journalists and his own family members and advisers.

Netanyahu likened the alleged spying to the Israel Defense Forces “using planes meant to be used against Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas to blow up Israeli civilians.”

Opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during a Likud faction meeting at the Knesset on February 7, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

The former premier said an investigation of the allegations must be backed by both the coalition and opposition, throwing his support behind an earlier proposal by his Likud party.

“Only thus can we restore public trust in our state and democracy,” he said.

Speaking earlier in the day at a Likud faction meeting, faction leader Yariv Levin  said “every citizen should lose sleep over” the alleged extrajudicial eavesdropping.

“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 reality in which we live under shadowy regimes,” he said.

Levin urged both the coalition and opposition to appeal to President Isaac Herzog to get involved in establishing an investigative panel. Under Levin’s proposal, Herzog and representatives of the coalition and opposition would together appoint the commission.

Isaac Herzog Yariv Levin at the Knesset in Jerusalem, June 2, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

There did not appear to be much appetite for Levin’s suggestion inside the government, however, with numerous ministers calling for the establishment of a state commission of inquiry into the allegations without mentioning involvement by Herzog or the opposition.

Earlier Monday, Public Security Minister Omer Barlev announced he was establishing a government-appointed commission to look into the claims that police illicitly spied on dozens of public officials, activists and citizens. Unlike a state commission of inquiry, a government commission does not require approval by the full cabinet for its establishment.

Barlev said it appeared from initial evidence that “the failures, if any, were under previous [police] commissioners, previous public security ministers and under previous governments.”

“Under my watch,” he added, “these failures will not happen. The police are under my responsibility and my authority, and I will make sure that if there was a violation of democracy in previous years, I will denounce it and not let it be repeated.”

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said Monday that “if the reports are true, they are very serious.”

He also implied that Gali Baharav-Miara, who was approved Monday afternoon as the new attorney general, will take over an investigation.

This studio photographic illustration shows a smartphone with the website of Israel’s NSO Group which features ‘Pegasus’ spyware, on display in Paris, on July 21, 2021. (Joel Saget/AFP)

Monday’s Calcalist report was the second half of a shocking expose detailing police spying against dozens of individuals, including 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; West Bank settlers just ahead of scheduled evacuations of illegal outposts; leaders of Ethiopian-Israeli protests against police, and many others, without judicial approval or oversight.

The news was condemned by a wide range of lawmakers and public officials across the political spectrum, who called the reports disturbing and deeply concerning.

Just before leaving office, former attorney general Avichai Mandelblit appointed the members of a committee of inquiry into the issue, headed by Deputy Attorney General Amit Marari. The state comptroller has also announced his own investigation into the claims.

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, and activate its camera or microphone without the user knowing.

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