Rejecting AG’s concerns, cabinet approves inquiry into police use of spy tech

Justice minister says legal officials are in ‘conflict of interest’ in raising concerns of interference in ongoing cases, including Netanyahu’s

Carrie Keller-Lynn is a former political and legal correspondent for The Times of Israel

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with Justice Minister Yariv Levin (L) during a cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem on April 30, 2023 (Emil Salman/POOL)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with Justice Minister Yariv Levin (L) during a cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem on April 30, 2023 (Emil Salman/POOL)

The cabinet voted on Sunday to form a committee to examine law enforcement’s use of spyware technology, in line with a request by Justice Minister Yariv Levin and in defiance of the attorney general’s opinion.

Granted investigative powers by the government, the panel will examine the conduct of police and the State Attorney’s Office in matters touching upon procurement of, surveillance with, and data collection through cyber tools.

Levin, who first requested the committee a month ago, said that the matter is directly connected to the police spyware scandal that broke in 2022, which revealed police usage of sophisticated cellphone hacking technology to obtain unfettered — and possibly, illegal — access to citizens’ devices.

“The spyware affair is one of the most serious ones exposed in recent years. Exposing the truth of the matter, and preventing similar incidents of fatal infringement of Israeli citizens’ right to privacy, is vital and extremely important,” Levin wrote in a statement released shortly after the committee’s approval.

The panel’s conclusions will help formulate a regulatory structure for how these advanced tools can be used, “in order to strengthen public trust that was damaged by the Pegasus affair,” Levin’s office adds.

Doubling down on Attorney General Gali Baharav-Miara’s opposition to the inquest panel, Deputy Attorney General Gil Limon told the cabinet that state legal advisers were concerned that the committee may interfere with ongoing cases.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (C) leads a cabinet meeting, at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem, August 27, 2023. (Sraya Diamant/POOL)

“I regret the reservations of some of the parties involved in this serious affair to conduct a thorough examination of the matter, despite the severe conflict of interest in which they find themselves,” Levin hit back in his Sunday statement.

A source close to the justice minister claimed that there would be no interference because the inquest will only look at whether police investigators made use of spyware technology, rather than looking at the cases more broadly. Limon seemingly rejected that logic, continuing to press Levin to restrict the committee’s access to open cases, according to quotes from the cabinet meeting leaked to Hebrew media.

In a letter sent last week to Levin, Baharav-Miara wrote that the minister does not have the authority to form a panel that probes into open legal cases, and particularly expressed concern that the committee may interfere with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s ongoing trial. An unstated implication was that spyware may have been used by the police and/or state prosecution in gathering material related to the charges against Netanyahu.

In response, Levin reportedly told Limon at Sunday’s meeting that the Attorney General’s Office is “curtailing human rights.”

Attorney General Gali Baharav Miara speaks with Justice Minister Yariv Levin during a cabinet meeting, held at the Western Wall tunnels in Jerusalem’s Old City on May 21, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

According to Hebrew media reports, Baharav-Miara is expected to be called to testify in front of the panel’s first meeting, in order to explain her legal opposition to its proceedings.

When Baharav-Miara issued her initial opinion last week, far-right lawmaker and judicial overhaul champion Simcha Rothman accused the attorney general of “hiding something.”

Celebrating Sunday’s decision to form the commission of inquiry, Rothman tweeted: “There must not be people or entities that are immune from criticism and investigation for violating the rights of citizens, the interrogated, and [criminal] suspects.”

Rothman was instrumental in passing the coalition’s first judicial overhaul law, which blocked courts from exercising oversight over cabinet or ministerial decisions.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu leads a cabinet meeting, at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem on August 20, 2023. (Olivier Fitoussi/POOL/Flash90)

Netanyahu has steadfastly maintained his innocence and blamed the charges on a biased police force, a weak attorney general, and the media. Levin is the architect of the government’s controversial plan to loosen judicial checks on political power.

Voters for their Likud party poll as having reduced trust in the judiciary since the prime minister was indicted, and Levin has cited the trial as a turning point in garnering public support for his vision.

Given his perceived conflict of interest, Netanyahu recused himself from voting on the panel and removed himself from the room during discussion.

Former District Court judge Moshe Drori will lead the new panel. He is a staunch supporter of the government’s plan to overhaul the judiciary and previously voiced strong criticism of former attorney general Avichai Mandelblit, who oversaw the indictment against Netanyahu.

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