Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Wednesday demanded that his key election rival Benny Gantz reveal what information Iranian hackers may have gleaned from his cellphone, and asserted that the data breach was enough to compromise the Blue and White party leader’s suitability to be premier.
At a press conference held at his Jerusalem residence, Netanyahu said the centrist Blue and White party had been thrown into a “panic” by reports of the hack, claiming it raised questions over Gantz’s ability to lead the nation.
“How can you as a prime minister confront Iran, our number one enemy, when it has sensitive content about you?” he said. “It’s not gossip, it’s a matter of national security.”
Netanyahu went on to accuse Gantz of poor judgment, and called on him to publicly reveal what was on his phone.
“Gantz, what are you hiding from the Israeli public? What do the Iranians know about you? What material do they have? Why didn’t you inform your party partners about the matters on which the Shin Bet [security service] updated you?” he asked, referring to the fact that Gantz was told about the hack around six months ago but apparently did not share the information with his political allies. “What do you have to hide from them? Did you do something irresponsible with your phone? When you know that these devices are accessible to enemy intelligence services?”
Last Thursday Channel 12 news reported Iranian intelligence had managed to gain access to Gantz’s phone and all its contents. A follow-up report on Saturday night said that no sensitive security information had been housed on Gantz’s phone at the time of the breach, but suggested that the incident was “embarrassing” for him.
Netanyahu’s ruling Likud party has sought to use the hack to portray Gantz is unfit to lead the country. Gantz has said the phone did not contain any confidential information and has charged that the leak of the breach to the media last week was politically motivated. Iran has denied it hacked Gantz’s phone.
Earlier, Blue and White asked the Central Elections Committee to prevent Netanyahu from holding the press conference, citing electioneering laws, but the chairman rejected the request.
In recent days Blue and White leaders have accused Netanyahu of possible involvement in a major corruption scandal surrounding the purchase of submarines and naval vessels from Germany. In the case, police believe Israeli officials were bribed to push a massive deal for military naval vessels worth hundreds of millions of dollars, in what some have called the largest suspected graft scandal in the country’s history.
Former defense minister Moshe Ya’alon on Wednesday even suggested Netanyahu’s actions could constitute “treason.”
The claims against Netanyahu came over reports that he may have earned millions of shekels from Case 3000, the so-called submarine affair. Investigators have previously ruled out Netanyahu as a suspect in the case, although police have recommended indictments against several figures close to him. The prime minister is facing indictments, pending a hearing, in three other corruption cases.
Netanyahu in his address said Gantz, and the Blue and White party’s number two, Yair Lapid, were so riled by the hacking revelation that they were trying to divert attention through accusations against him.
“In the last few days Lapid and Gantz’s desperation has brought them to a new low,” Netanayahu said. “We ask ourselves, and public asks itself, what is the reason for this panic? The answer is clear. Lapid and Gantz are panicking because Iran hacked Gantz’s telephone and took sensitive material from it. Lapid and Gantz’s hysteria raises serious questions.”
“They are trying with all their might to resuscitate a case that has been thoroughly examined with all the information and it was determined unequivocally that there was no flaw in my decisions, all of which were on behalf of the security of the country.”
“There is no new information here, nothing new, except one thing — Lapid and Gantz’s panic.”
On Tuesday Gantz gave his first sit-down interviews with Israel’s major television networks during which he dismissed concerns over his hacked phone and insisted the affair had been overblown and was politically motivated.
“This telephone issue is so marginal,” Gantz told Channel 12, which first reported the hack last week.
“The Shin Bet told me six months ago that there was a certain problem; I dealt with it,” said the leader of the centrist party, stressing that no sensitive security intelligence or personally incriminating information was on the phone.
“I can’t be influenced because of it,” he told Channel 12. “There’s nothing there to interfere with my performance as a public servant.”
“If people are seeking that I’ll quit, they are mistaken,” he added, unprompted. “I plan to serve the State of Israel,” he said.
He also said that his “wife supports me from here and until further notice,” seemingly referencing rumors that the phone had contained salacious material.
In another interview, with the Ynet news site, Gantz refused to say what was on the phone other than it was “personal.”
Tehran denied the hacking reports Wednesday, with Foreign Ministry spokesperson Bahram Qasemi telling reporters that Israel was “fabricating various kinds of irrelevant claims to create a hostile atmosphere against Iran,” according to the official news agency IRNA.
Gantz’s Blue and White party has said that the phone hacking story was leaked in an attempt to divert attention away from the Case 3000 revelations. At the same time, the party has asked Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit to investigate who leaked the story to the press.