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Report: Police used NSO’s spyware in corruption probe of Likud MK

Law enforcement allegedly obtained photographs and information from phone of David Bitan’s acquaintance; lawmaker appears in court for first time in trial

Likud MK David Bitan arrives for a court hearing at the Lod District Court, on January 19, 2022. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)
Likud MK David Bitan arrives for a court hearing at the Lod District Court, on January 19, 2022. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

Police used NSO Group’s spyware in a corruption investigation that resulted in Likud MK David Bitan being indicted on charges of bribery, fraud, breach of trust, money laundering and tax offenses, a law enforcement official said Wednesday.

The unnamed official told the Ynet news site that the software was used against an acquaintance of Bitan, giving the police access to photographs and information relevant to the investigation.

Bitan’s lawyers told the news site they also suspect police had used NSO’s software as part of the investigation, and claimed it may correlate with police having photographs of a business in central Israel used to incriminate him.

The report comes amid an explosive report in the Calcalist business news outlet on Tuesday, which said police have for years been making widespread use of NSO’s Pegasus against Israeli civilians, including people not suspected of any crimes, exploiting a legal loophole and keeping the surveillance under tight secrecy, without oversight by a court or a judge.

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, or activate its camera or microphone without the user knowing.

The report said police used the spyware against the anti-Netanyahu Black Flag protest movement, two mayors, activists campaigning against LGBT pride parades, an associate of a senior politician and employees in governmental firms.

Police say the specific allegations were “baseless,” but didn’t deny using the software in some cases. They argued that the activity was legal and rested entirely on court orders and “meticulous work protocols.”

They gave a similar response when questioned on Bitan’s case, without confirming which methods were used due to the ongoing trial.

A logo adorns a wall on a branch of the Israeli NSO Group company, near the southern Israeli town of Sapir, on August 24, 2021. (AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner, File)

The charges date back to when Bitan — a former coalition whip and confidant of ex-prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu — was deputy mayor of Rishon Lezion, before he was elected to the Knesset in 2013, but also include his tenure as an MK.

While he has denied wrongdoing, Bitan stepped down from his role as coalition whip in 2017, shortly after news of the police investigation broke.

He is accused of receiving bribes from his business associate Moshe Yosef and from businessman Dror Glazer, both while serving as deputy mayor of Israel’s fourth-largest city, Rishon Lezion, and later as a member of Knesset. Both men have testified against him.

Former deputy Tel Aviv mayor Arnon Giladi and then-Rishon Lezion mayor Dov Zur are also suspects in the alleged bribe-taking that took place between 2011 and 2017.

Police said in 2020 that they had obtained detailed information on how the suspected bribes and money transfers were handled, in light of the testimony from Yosef, who owns a furniture store where Bitan was allegedly given the money.

Prosecutors alleged that Bitan advanced the interests of construction company Danya Cebus by approving real estate deals in Rishon Lezion, in exchange for a NIS 430,000 ($124,000) cash payment. The sum paid to Bitan was to secure Danya Cebus’s bid to win a municipal tender to build a gas station on the outskirts of the city, as well as approval for another construction project outside Jerusalem on Route 38.

They also said that they uncovered evidence that Bitan and Giladi accepted a bribe of NIS 385,000 ($111,000) to secure building permits for three real estate projects in Tel Aviv. Police said some of the bribe money was transferred to Bitan using fake invoices.

Bitan appeared in court for the first time in his trial on Wednesday.

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