Justice Minister Gideon Sa’ar on Wednesday distanced the governing coalition from claims that police illicitly surveilled the phones of Israeli citizens, saying the alleged hackings took place under the previous government.
“These are incidents that, if they occurred, are severe. And if they occurred, they occurred several years ago — they did not happen on our watch, but they will be probed without whitewashing on our watch,” he said in an interview with the Walla news site.
Opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party was in power when the alleged illicit use of NSO’s phone-tapping technology began.
Sa’ar asserted that members of the Likud party appeared to be “very worried” by the prospect of an investigation into the allegations and that Netanyahu was aiming to “delegitimize” any commission of inquiry into the affair.
Netanyahu has himself called for a full investigation of the matter. But Sa’ar cited disagreements over the type of committee that should be set up to investigate, which would in turn determine its investigative powers. Likud had said President Isaac Herzog should form the committee.
“I think they are apparently very worried by an investigation,” Sa’ar said. “Because there is no way under the law that the president sets up commissions of inquiry.
“There are two types of committees with powers: a government committee headed by a judge, which I as [justice] minister give powers to, and a state commission headed by a Supreme Court judge,” Sa’ar said.
“When they talk of a committee appointed by the president, I understand that they really do not want an investigation, because there is no such thing,” Sa’ar said.
The comments were an apparent response to Likud MK Yariv Levin, who called on the opposition to rally around Herzog and urge him to appoint a commission to look into the allegations.
Asked whether he thought Netanyahu was involved in the publication of the allegations against police, Sa’ar said he would “never say something unless I have an evidential factual basis to say it, so I will not say it.”
The Calcalist financial newspaper, which has not cited any sources or evidence, reported Monday that spyware was deployed without the required judicial oversight against senior government officials, mayors, activist leaders, journalists, as well as Netanyahu’s family members and advisers.
Sa’ar also stressed that many of the claims in the report were still merely allegations.
“We think it’s good to have free investigative journalism, and in this case it has initiated a process, but… we need to see something more significant that does not yet exist,” Sa’ar said.
An internal police investigation into the latest Calcalist allegations submitted to Prime Minister Naftali Bennett has so far found that only three of the 26 people named in the report were in fact targeted and only one was successfully hacked.
According to Channel 12 news, a court approved the use of spyware in the three cases. It is not known who the three were.
Public Security Minister Omer Barlev presented the results of the probe to Bennett during a Tuesday meeting of top government officials to discuss the allegations and consider establishing a state commission of inquiry, which requires full cabinet approval.
Several ministers have already voiced their support for a more forceful state commission of inquiry, which could subpoena those involved to testify. Sa’ar, Barlev,Finance Minister Avigdor Liberman and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid in calling for a state commission, though the latter argued that the panel should start by investigating members of the previous government led by Netanyahu.
Opposition members, including MKs in Likud, have also called for a state commission, pointing to the reported police targeting of Netanyahu’s family and inner circle as well as witnesses in his criminal trial, which they asserted should be scrapped as a result.
Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai on Tuesday again denied that officers used spyware illegally against Israeli public and private figures. Shabtai said the internal investigation he ordered had so far found “no evidence of breaking the law.”