Police say only 1 of 26 people allegedly spied on was hacked, with judge’s okay

Two others said targeted unsuccessfully; Bennett says further checks required before deciding on establishing formal inquiry, as Shin Bet, Mossad join existing investigation

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett (left) speaks with Public Security Minister Omer Barlev at the Knesset, on February 7, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Prime Minister Naftali Bennett (left) speaks with Public Security Minister Omer Barlev at the Knesset, on February 7, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

An internal investigation into allegations that police illicitly surveilled the phones of Israeli citizens found only three people named in a report on the alleged hacking were in fact targeted, according to the findings of a probe presented to Prime Minister Naftali Bennett on Tuesday.

The police-run probe, which was shared with Bennett by Public Security Minister Omer Barlev, found that three of the 26 names included in the Calcalist business daily’s report were targeted using NSO Group’s Pegasus program, and that police only successfully hacked one of the phones.

According to Channel 12 news, a court approved the use of spyware in the three cases.

It was not clear who the three were or whose phone was successfully hacked. Calcalist, which did not cite any sources or evidence, reported Monday that the spyware was deployed, without the required judicial oversight, against senior government officials, mayors, activist leaders, journalists, and former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s family members and advisers.

The police probe also did not specify if it investigated the possibility that other, similar spyware programs were utilized to hack the phones of officials.

Barlev presented the results of the probe to Bennett during a meeting of top government officials to discuss the allegations and consider establishing a state commission of inquiry, which requires full cabinet approval. Also taking part in the meeting were Justice Minister Gideon Sa’ar, new Attorney General Gali Baharav-Miara and Deputy Attorney General Amit Marari, who is heading an investigative committee that was established to examine the phone-hacking claims.

“Before a decision is made on the mechanism for investigating the affair, the prime minister requested to conduct a [further] probe of the 26 names mentioned in the Calcalist newspaper’s report,” a statement from Bennett’s office said.

A person holding a phone with the NSO logo in the background, in Jerusalem, on February 7, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The statement added that Marari’s team would therefore carry out “a thorough probe” in the coming days, with representatives from the Shin Bet and Mossad intelligence agencies joining the investigation. A decision on “the further treatment of the issue” will only be made once the findings from that investigation are presented, according to the Prime Minister’s Office.

Several ministers have already voiced their support for a more forceful state commission of inquiry, which could subpoena those involved to testify. Finance Minister Avigdor Liberman penned a letter to Bennett on Tuesday demanding such a probe be opened. He joins Sa’ar, Barlev and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid in calling for a state commission, though the latter argued that the panel should start by investigating members of the previous government led by Likud chair Benjamin Netanyahu, as it was in power when the alleged illicit use of NSO’s phone-tapping technology began.

Opposition members, including MKs in Likud, have also called for a state commission, pointing to the reported police targeting of Netanyahu’s family and inner circle as well as witnesses in his criminal trial, which they say should be scrapped as a result.

Among the 26 names included in the Calcalist report were Avner Netanyahu, the son of the former prime minister; Emi Palmor, the former director of the Justice Ministry; prominent businessman Rami Levy; Ilan Yeshua, the former CEO of Walla and currently a top witness in the trial against Netanyahu; and Netanya Mayor Miriam Feirberg.

Bennett has not indicated what type of probe he may back, saying thus far that the allegations are serious and that those responsible should be held to account if it is proven that the police deployed the spyware illegally. However, Bennett also argued that Pegasus plays an important role in Israel’s war on terror, and that it need not be tossed altogether as a result of the scandal.

According to Channel 13, NSO Group’s CEO Shalev Hulio has promised to cooperate with the investigation, while freezing the system used by the Israel Police until the investigation is complete.

Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai earlier Tuesday again denied that officers used spyware illegally against Israeli public and private figures. Shabtai said the internal investigation he ordered had so far found “no evidence of breaking the law.”

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