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Herzog: Law enforcement can't be careless when upholding law

PM calls explosive NSO spying claims ‘very grave’; police minister to set up probe

Bennett: If cops abused spyware, that’s ‘unacceptable in a democratic state’; Israel Police chief, numerous lawmakers demand independent investigation

Amy Spiro is a reporter and writer with The Times of Israel.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, left, with Public Security Minister Omer Barlev at a  police ceremony in Tel Aviv, on November 9, 2021. (Yossi Aloni/Flash90)
Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, left, with Public Security Minister Omer Barlev at a police ceremony in Tel Aviv, on November 9, 2021. (Yossi Aloni/Flash90)

Public Security Minister Omer Barlev announced Monday that he was moving to establish a commission to look into explosive claims that the Israel Police conducted extensive extrajudicial spying against dozens of public officials, activists and citizens.

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

Finance Minister Avigdor Liberman said the allegations registered at “9 on the Richter scale.”

Said Barlev: “I have decided to set up a government-appointed commission of examination to investigate in depth the violation of the civil rights and privacy of citizens in the years in question.” Unlike a state commission of inquiry, a government commission, known under the law as a government-appointed committee of examination, 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.”

Bennett said that while Pegasus and other similar spyware programs “are important tools in the fight against terror and serious crime, they are not intended for widespread ‘phishing’ among Israeli citizens or public figures in the State of Israel, so we need to understand exactly what happened.”

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett speaks at the annual Annual International Conference of the Institute for National Security Studies, on February 1, 2022. (Haim Zach/GPO)

Bennett implied that, though she is yet to be fully confirmed, Gali Baharav-Miara will be approved as the next attorney general later on Monday and will take over an investigation.

“I would say it’s an advantage that she is not from the establishment,” Bennett said of Baharav-Miara. Following her appointment, he said, “we will sit and discuss, we will understand the situation and we will not leave the public without an answer. We understand the severity of the matter.”

His comments came in the wake of an explosive Calcalist report alleging that police used the NSO Group’s Pegasus spyware to hack into the phones of government officials, mayors, activists, journalists and family members and advisers of former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Earlier Monday, Israel Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai called for an external investigation into the claims.

“In light of the recent reports regarding the Israel Police operation of technological systems in the years before I took office, I requested that the public security minister order the establishment of an external and independent judicial review committee, headed by a judge, to examine the issue in all its aspects,” Shabtai said in a statement. The goal of such a probe, he said, “is both to restore public trust in the Israel Police and to regulate the use of technologies in the Israel Police.”

Israel Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai speaks during a ceremony in Nazareth on November 9, 2021. (Michael Giladi/Flash90)

Shabtai, who took office in January 2021, vowed that any “failures and irregularities” uncovered by the investigation “will be dealt with in accordance with the law.”

Early Monday morning, the Calcalist business daily published the second half of a shocking report on 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 any 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.

Speaking at a conference Monday morning, President Isaac Herzog said he felt compelled to comment on the allegations.

“The law enforcement system cannot be careless when upholding the law,” Herzog said. “Those who enforce the law must be meticulous, more than anyone, in all aspects. We cannot lose our democracy, we cannot lose our police and we certainly cannot lose public trust in them.”

Herzog said the allegations demand “an in-depth and thorough investigation.”

President Isaac Herzog speaks during a conference of the ‘Besheva’ group in Jerusalem, on February 7, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Energy Minister Karine Elharrar said that the report cannot be ignored “if we are proponents of democracy.”

The shocking allegations, she said “require an in-depth investigation that ultimately leads to operational conclusions.”

Environment Minister Tamar Zandberg said the allegations “leave no room for doubt: This is an earthquake that requires no less than a state commission of inquiry.” Zandberg decried the idea “that a democratic state spies on its citizens like the last of the dictatorships.”

Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked said “the Knesset and the entire public deserve answers — today.”

Energy Minister Karine Elharrar during a meeting of the Arrangements Committee at the Knesset on June 9, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Echoing calls for a state inquiry, Diaspora Minister Nachman Shai said that “in a country that observes the rule of law, the police cannot be a law unto themselves.”

At a meeting of the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee on Monday morning, Labor MK and committee chairman Gilad Kariv called for a state commission of inquiry into the claims. An investigation, he said, must be conducted independent of the Justice Ministry, “since, among other things, the oversight of the police must be probed.”

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.

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

Other members of the Knesset committee from both the coalition and the opposition echoed a call to investigate the claims immediately.

Religious Zionism MK Simcha Rothman said that “every day that people who have held these powers are not arrested and interrogated is another day that they can coordinate evidence and can disrupt legal proceedings.”

Likud MK Shlomo Karhi said the probe being headed by Marari “is like the cat guarding the cream. It is not enough for an investigative committee like this to be headed by someone from within the system.”

In its report, Calcalist pointed the finger for such acts at former Israel Police commissioner Roni Alsheich, who served from 2015 to 2018; then-head of the police technology department Yosef Kahlon; and Yoav Hassan, head of its SIGINT division.

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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