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NSO spyware firm said to freeze police use of its technology

Police chief again denies illegal use of spyware in face of explosive claims

Kobi Shabtai’s predecessor Roni Alsheich, who led investigations into Netanyahu, remains mum amid calls for scrutiny of actions committed under his watch

Tobias (Toby) Siegal is a breaking news editor and contributor to The Times of Israel.

Chief of Police Kobi Shabtai speaks during a ceremony in the northern city of Nazareth, on November 9, 2021 (Michael Giladi/Flash90)
Chief of Police Kobi Shabtai speaks during a ceremony in the northern city of Nazareth, on November 9, 2021 (Michael Giladi/Flash90)

Israel Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai on Tuesday continued to deny allegations that officers used spyware illegally against Israeli public and private figures, cutting short his first official visit to the UAE amid burgeoning public criticism.

Shabtai said he had ordered an internal investigation of the allegations that so far has found “no evidence of breaking the law.”

In a letter sent out to the entire police force, Shabtai said he has “full confidence in the integrity of the Israeli Police… [We] will cooperate in any way necessary with any established [investigatory] committee in order to reach the truth. In a democratic state, it is crucial to provide law enforcement with advanced tools aimed at tackling crime and saving lives as part of its responsibility to protect the public.”

In a bombshell report into the use of spyware by the Israel Police published by the Calcalist newspaper Monday, it was claimed that NSO Group’s Pegasus program was deployed against senior government officials, mayors, activist leaders, journalists, and former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s family members and advisers, all without judicial authority or oversight.

According to the report, police used the software to hack into the phones of 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; leaders of Ethiopian-Israeli protests against police, and many others.

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

NSO Group CEO Shalev Hulio speaks with the Calcalist paper, April 20, 2020. (YouTube screenshot)

“If the publications are true, they are disturbing, outrageous and cannot happen in a democratic state,” Hulio wrote in a letter sent out to all company employees.

“If true, this constitutes illegal conduct carried out by the Israel Police, and of course a gross violation of our agreement with them.

“Systems of this kind should only be used for preventing serious crimes and terrorism, and those are the only purposes the police need such tools for. Any other use of these capabilities is unacceptable, undemocratic, illegal, and violates the basic public trust in law enforcement,” he wrote.

Former police commissioner Roni Alsheich, who led the investigations into Netanyahu, and under whose watch much of the illicit spying against public figures and ordinary citizens was alleged to have taken place, has so far refused to comment on the report, amid calls for him to be scrutinized.

Channel 12 quoted unnamed police officials as saying that “if the reports turn out to be true, he will need to stand trial.”

Addressing the scandal on Monday,  Labor MK Gilad Kariv, chairman of the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee, said that as a 27-year veteran of the Shin Bet security service, Alsheich was never the right person to lead the Israel Police.

Then-police commissioner Roni Alsheich (left) and then-prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a welcoming ceremony for Alsheich at the start of his term, at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem, December 3, 2015. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

“There were plenty of voices that warned against appointing a person who rose up through the Shin Bet,” he told Army Radio, but qualified that he did not want to reach any conclusions before an official investigation is launched.

Coming to Alsheich’s defense was his former adviser Lior Horev, who told Army Radio Tuesday morning that the former police chief should not be held responsible for others’ actions, while noting that the Israel Police possessed spying capabilities long before Alsheich became commissioner.

“If there were any anomalies, they were surely not Alsheich’s responsibility,” he said. “It’s no coincidence that Alsheich is not giving any interviews. To mention his name in the context of this affair is a farce. This operational capability has existed in the police long before he even knew he would become police commissioner.”

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett has called the allegations very grave and said that, if true, the abuses were “unacceptable in a democratic state.”

On Monday, ministers and lawmakers called for the establishment of a state inquiry into the explosive claims.

Labor MK Gilad Kariv speaks at a meeting of the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee on February 7, 2022. (Noam Moskowitz/Knesset)

Just before leaving office, former attorney general Avichai Mandelblit appointed 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.

Meanwhile, a scheduled court hearing in Netanyahu’s ongoing corruption trial was canceled on Monday, as the judges awaited answers on whether the new claims could have implications on the testimonies of witnesses in the case.

The Jerusalem District Court gave prosecutors until 2 p.m. Tuesday to respond to questions regarding the illicit phone spying. The judges will convene Wednesday to discuss how to proceed, the court said.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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