Opposition pushes through preliminary bill for probe into police spying

Proposal manages to pass first reading in Knesset with vote of 59-58 after coalition MK leaves plenum for interview

An Israeli woman uses her phone in front of a building in Herzliya that housed the NSO Group intelligence firm, August 28, 2016. (Jack Guez/AFP/File)
An Israeli woman uses her phone in front of a building in Herzliya that housed the NSO Group intelligence firm, August 28, 2016. (Jack Guez/AFP/File)

In a snub to the teetering coalition, opposition lawmakers on Wednesday managed to advance a bill calling for the establishment of a state inquiry into claims the Israel Police conducted extrajudicial spying against dozens of public officials, activists and citizens.

The bill, proposed by Likud MK Yoav Kisch, passed its preliminary reading 59-58. It will need to go through three more votes before becoming law.

During the vote, Meretz MK Yair Golan left the plenum to be interviewed by Channel 12 news, which temporarily gave the opposition the majority.

The embattled coalition was reduced to a 60-60 seat parity with the opposition after Yamina MK Idit Silman defected in early April, putting the government in peril. Opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party pulled a bill to dissolve the Knesset on Wednesday after the Islamist Ra’am party announced the faction will return to the coalition following a boycott, keeping the government alive for now.

After Wednesday’s vote on the police probe, Yesh Atid MK and chair of the Knesset’s Public Security Committee Meirav Ben-Ari said that “this bill was passed only thanks to the ignorance that swept the plenum.”

“How many [opposition] Knesset members came to the discussions we held in the committee on the subject?” Ben-Ari said.

MK Merav Ben-Ari at a conference at the International Convention Center in Jerusalem, February 21, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Earlier this year, police were accused of unwarranted use of the NSO Group’s Pegasus to spyware on Israeli citizens through their phones, in a major scandal for law enforcement.

In February the Calcalist newspaper reported, without providing evidence or citing sources, that dozens of high-profile Israeli figures — including former ministry directors, prominent business figures, and family members and associates of former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu — were spied on by police using the NSO Group’s Pegasus spyware without any judicial oversight.

Investigations by police and an interim report by Deputy Attorney General Amit Marari found Calcalist’s reporting to have been largely incorrect, with none of the 26 people supposedly hacked having actually been targeted by police.

Pegasus is an extremely powerful tool that delivers a zero-click exploit — requiring no user interaction — allowing the spyware’s operator to remotely gain access to all of a phone’s data and functionality. It also enables operators to listen in on calls and use it as a listening device.

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