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Israel media review

Rang up: What the press is saying about phone hacks, price hikes and IS hits

The cops are in trouble for misleading about phone spyware, people are unhappy that goods are overpriced, and Israelis want a role in the assassination of Islamic State’s leader

Illustrative: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at his office in Jerusalem on a phone call with UAE leader Mohammed Bin Zayed on August 13, 2020. (Kobi Gideon/PMO)
Illustrative: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at his office in Jerusalem on a phone call with UAE leader Mohammed Bin Zayed on August 13, 2020. (Kobi Gideon/PMO)

1. Bibi I got your number: In one of the less unexpected twists in the news this week, the graft trial of opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu and the police Pegasus phone pumping affair have become intertwined on the heels of reports that investigators illegally copied everything off the phone of a key witness and former Netanyahu confidant.

  • According to reports in a number of Hebrew-language media outlets, police, without the necessary approval from a judge, used spyware to snag all the data from the phone of Shlomo Filber, a former director-general of the Communications Ministry and Netanyahu aide who is a key state’s witness in Case 4000, the most serious of the cases against the former prime minister.
  • Channel 12 news reports that the not-quite-bombshell — or earthquake in Netanyahu’s telling — will likely wind up delaying Netanyahu’s trial as investigators try to figure out what in tarnation happened. However, criminal attorney Boaz Koenig tells the channel that in Israel, unlike the US, evidence obtained illegally is not necessarily inadmissible in court.
  • But it gets worse: According to Channel 13, after news broke some two weeks ago that police had used NSO Group’s infamous spyware to hack into phones without authorization — including hints that the tech was used against figures involved in the Netanyahu case — the Justice Ministry asked police if they had in fact spied on anyone with the tech: “Police misled the prosecution and claimed that no spy tech had been used against anyone associated with the trial,” the channel reports.
  • According to 13, police insist that the spyware was only used against Filber, but the Justice Ministry doesn’t quite believe them and is demanding a deeper probe into the alleged NSO spying, noting that the revelation has a sparked a “crisis in confidence between the prosecution and police.”
  • Among those who think his phone might have been hacked as well is Nir Hefetz, another former Netanyahu aide turned state’s witness. “The first few days I was behind bars, they asked for my phone and computer passwords. I refused until they agreed to commit to not look into anything private. If I find out that they used the program, I’ll add it to a civil suit I’m already working on,” he tells Kan, which reports that Filber was likely not the only one hacked.
  • Despite the fact that police have apparently lied to other officials and to the public, again and again, networks apparently still trust them enough to report — without a source, of course — that the hacked information was extracted back in 2017 and never given to anyone outside the police unit that gathered the info.
  • Public Security Minister Omer Barlev tells Kan that the illegal phone hacking was probably just the doing of “some investigator or another,” apparently willing to believe that the illegal spying by cops caught lying again and again was not a systemic issue. But he also notes that “the investigation is ongoing” and it could be that there are more incidents in which the spyware was used.
  • Despite speculation that the revelations will delay the trial, Ynet reports that “the prosecution is continuing with its business as normal.”
  • For Israel Hayom, which has long acted as a megaphone for Netanyahu’s claim that the police were railroading him and other witnesses, the revelations are welcomed as if they prove he was right all along.
  • “Until a few months ago, fears of a conspiracy around Netanyahu’s trial seemed exaggerated to me,” writes the paper’s Ariel Kahana. “No more. More than enough evidence points to the deep fear that this was [assumed guilt] at best and a conspiracy theory at worst.”
  • It’s not just Netanyahu supporters saying it. Walla’s Tal Shalev writes that the scandal goes far beyond just a talking point for Netanyahu and his allies to glom onto to score points against the former premier’s persecutors and prosecutors. “The severity of the revelations show that the police need to get away from the auto-dichotomy between Bibi-ism and anti-Bibi-ism and demand a real house cleaning.”
  • Or they can just push through legislation that makes it all okay, which is what the plan is, at least for the Shin Bet, Haaretz reports. According to the paper, the Justice Ministry is working on legislation that would give it powers to use programs like Pegasus to gather data, “regulating a practice that the service already utilized without any explicit agreement.”
  • While the Shin Bet claims it won’t violate rights and will use the program according to narrow guidelines, senior Justice Ministry official Neta Koenigsburg tells the paper that there’s nothing to stop them from doing what they want with the info for the purposes of fulfilling a task. “She didn’t dismiss the use of the data for needs that don’t have any connection to security, including vetting a candidate for a government job,” it reports.

2. The bamba is too damn high: If many seem willing (or at least resigned) to accept police-state intrusions as a fait accompli, they are drawing the line at paying another NIS 3 (about 80 cents) for tuna or pasta.

  • “How can one survive the rise in prices?” asks the front page of Yedioth Ahronoth’s weekend finance section, leading off a seven-page package on an issue that Israelis have consistently rated as a higher priority than security concerns, corruption or anything else.
  • Luckily, Israelis may not need to try, as a week of pressure appears to pay off with several food manufacturers agreeing to put off price hikes until after Passover. The (overpriced) cherry on top comes Thursday with the news that Osem-Nestlé won’t raise prices then either, treated as a major win, as if the company agreed to never raise prices again.
  • Israel Hayom calls the Osem announcement “the taste of victory.”
    Deputy economy minister Yair Golan tells Army Radio that “this is both an accomplishment and gives us a sort of breather so we can sit together and ask ourselves, how do we create economic stability in a reality of rising prices.”
  • But not everyone is impressed with the great victory. Yedioth reporter Itamar Eichner tweets that “the folding of the food importers and manufacturers to delay price hikes until after Passover isn’t really a capitulation and raises suspicions of being a trick. They should have needed to lower prices and now the prices will stay the same and the pressure will be off. The government needs to continue putting pressure and the public needs to continue acting like frugal consumers and search for alternatives.”
  • But Globes reports that the pressure the government may have put on the companies may have overstepped bounds as it is. According to the financial daily, the government can’t just sic its Competition Authority on whatever company it feels is making too much money, since the agency isn’t under government control or even government financing, even if it does pick who heads it: “The authority website explains that its independent role is especially important because its task requires it to stand up to businesses with huge financial power which could be used to put pressure on decision-makers.”
  • Meanwhile, more bad news for Israeli wallets may be on the way. Channel 12 news reports that the “wave” of cost increases is set to hit the pharmaceutical market. The channel reports that the Health Ministry okayed price hikes for 60 drugs, which are set to published soon.

3. Idlib, Israel, same diff: Israelis appeared to be less concerned about Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi paying with his life for leading the Islamic State terror group, reporting extensively on the operation and even trying to insert an Israeli connection to the raid.

  • A few outlets report that the US informed Israel about the raid ahead of time, including Kan, which says that Israel likely got the heads up thanks to Jerusalem’s familiarity with al-Qurayshi, who held the “Israel file” in IS before taking over as the terror group’s leader in October 2019, when his predecessor was killed in a similar US raid.
  • But Channel 13 takes it a step further, going out on a limb in reporting that “one can assume, according to defense sources, that Israel aided the tracking of Abu Ibrahim, and helped with its Syrian sources to create the intelligence window that allowed the US to send special forces.”
  • Several other outlets look beyond the actual assassination to what it means for the wider region.
  • Former Military Intelligence head Amos Yadlin is quoted in Haaretz calling the raid “a targeted operation that can improve the United State’s problematic image following the withdrawal from Afghanistan and give President Biden a boost in his main struggle in the Russia-Ukraine crisis.”
  • In Israel Hayom, former national security adviser Meir Ben-Shabbat writes that the hit job might also give relevancy to US threats against Iran, assuming US President Joe Biden doesn’t back down.
  • “The raid gives the Biden administration the chance to show that it knows how to bring down the hammer when it wants,” he writes, “and that assassinations, or more broadly, special ops, are still relevant parts of its toolbox.”

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