Israel media review

Soldiers and spies: 7 things to know for November 25

Phone hacker NSO Group’s Saudi connection becomes clearer; an alleged Israeli spy denies everything, and the press tackles fights over the army old and new

Joshua Davidovich is The Times of Israel's Deputy Editor

IDF soldiers take part in an exercise simulating warfare in the Gaza Strip in July 2018. (Israel Defense Forces)
IDF soldiers take part in an exercise simulating warfare in the Gaza Strip in July 2018. (Israel Defense Forces)

1. Ringing up NSO: Saudi Arabia was in talks with Israeli cyber-spying group NSO Group to buy technology to hack into cell phones, Haaretz reports, based on court documents.

  • The news should surprise exactly nobody as Saudi Arabia was believed to be among the dozens of countries NSO was thought to have sold its technologies to, but the Haaretz report moves beyond conjecture, citing a European businessman who complained to Israeli police that he brokered the deal and then was burned by NSO.
  • The businessman (who will likely have trouble finding similar business after he blabbed to the police and press) is not named in the report, but the investigation is also based on correspondence between a (similarly burned) Turkish mediator named Cem Koksal and lawyers for the Israeli involved in reaching the deal with the Saudis, named only as W.
  • The report places the sale of the system to the Saudis to just before Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman began his purge/shakedown of other royals.
  • “According to the European businessman, the Saudis, already at the first meeting, passed along to the representatives of one of the companies details of a Twitter account of a person who had tweeted against the regime. They wanted to know who was behind the account, but the Israeli company refused to say,” the investigation reads.
  • Reports by Citizen Lab and others have pointed to evidence that seems to indicate NSO’s pegasus being used to track Saudi dissidents from an account seemingly controlled in Saudi Arabia. As well, Edward Snowden recently named NSO as a company involved in helping MBS track down Jamal Khashoggi.
  • One interesting tidbit: When the Israelis wanted to fly to Riyadh to seal the deal, the Defense Ministry’s department that is supposed to approve such deals (and encourage exports) refused to sign off on it. NSO’s defense has always been that its deals are approved by the Defense Ministry and what countries do with their technology is none of their business.

2. The spy who paid me: Another Israeli accused of being involved in shady dealings, Charles Tawil, denies claims by George Papadapolous that he forced him to take $10,000 as part of some deep-state scheme, and threatened to kill him if he didn’t.

  • Papadapolous is the first convict of the Mueller probe into US President Donald Trump’s Russia ties, but Tawil, speaking to the Times of Israel’s Miriam Herschlag in Dubai, says his claim is ridiculous.
  • “First of all, I support Trump, so why would I entrap a pro-Trump guy?” he says. “I like the fact that Trump is the president. I wanted him to be president. I worked a lot in Africa and I see the damage that Clinton and Obama did to the world. Trump may be eccentric but he is at least straightforward.”
  • Tawil says he gave Papadopolous the money because the two were starting a consultancy firm.
  • Buckle up and the read the whole roller coaster tale here.

3. Man Oman: Army Radio is reporting that a battle over the next chief of staff got more heated than many think, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu yelling at then-defense minister Avigdor Liberman, who wanted to appoint Aviv Kochavi.

  • According to the report, Netanyahu, who wanted Eyal Zamir, yelled at Liberman that if he nominated Kochavi, he would not allow the appointment to go before the cabinet for a vote.
  • Why the passion? According to Army Radio, Liberman tried to nominate Kochavi for several months, but was pushed off again and again by Netanyahu. Finally, when Netanyahu was making his secret trip to Oman last month, Liberman took the opportunity and called Netanyahu to tell him of his plans to make a public announcement on Kochavi. All the prime minister could do was yell.
  • There’s no source for the report and both sides deny it, but the fact that the appointment was made without an accompanying appointment for deputy ( to replace to Kochavi) is one clue that there was some funny business.
  • In the end Zamir was nominated as deputy only after Kochavi got the go ahead for a cabinet vote last week with Netanyahu, who as interim defense minister can only praise the appointment without looking petty, locked in.

4. Military math: The news comes as the army is set to begin enlisting its newest class of soldiers (there are a few enlistment periods throughout the year).

  • Several news sites cite army figures about who is enlisting, most of them useless stats like the most popular name for boys enlisting is Daniel and girls is Noa, and that recruits will get 30,000 pairs of winter gloves (but only 29,400 jackets) and 78,300 pairs of pants (but only 77,700 shirts). The very fact that the stats are considered news is a sign of the outsized role the military has in Israeli society.
  • The stories also point to something more sinister, the laziness of news sites, some of whom copy and paste the army’s fuzzy math without a second thought. Thus you have reports that there are 540 immigrants enlisting, including 359 Americans, 309 from Ethiopia, 239 from Russia, etc., etc.
  • And let’s all save a thought for the 600 soldiers who will apparently be spending the winter without shirts or jackets. Brrr.

5. Drafting support: Whether or not there will be a lot more recruits from the ultra-Orthodox community in the near future will be decided this week, with a December 2 deadline looming for the draft bill meant to regulate Haredi military enlistment.

  • With a week to go, the coalition still doesn’t know if it has the support of Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid party for the bill, which had said it would support any bill that the defense ministry backs. However, while the Haredi parties want the bill to pass, they can’t be seen to be voting for such an evil decree and thus will vote against it, creating what Yedioth Ahronoth calls “an absurd situation.”
  • Lapid meanwhile, doesn’t want to be seen as the government’s lifeline, and so has started to attack the bill as an underhanded political ploy by Netanyahu, as a way of climbing down from his promise, according to the paper.
  • According to Israel Hayom, though, Netanyahu has vowed not to change the bill from what Liberman and Lapid agreed to vote for, meaning he will continue to have their support, but the ultra-Orthodox parties could end up bolting the government over it.
  • If they choose to topple the government, though, “they will be forcing elections in which the issue of ultra-Orthodox enlistment will be a major theme,” the paper reports, noting that it’s not up to the politicians, but the panel of “Torah giants” pulling the strings behind the parties.

6. Not helping the aid workers: Sometimes underhanded is the name of the game. A weekend report in Walla News detailed that undercover Israeli commandos in Gaza had been disguised as aid workers. If the revelation is true, Haaretz’s Amos Harel writes, it will cast a shadow over and possibly endanger all the actual aid workers in the Strip, of which there is no shortage.

  • “If Israel has abused the network of international or local aid groups, it could undermine the critical activities of organizations large and small: The Hamas government that controls the Gaza Strip might take precautions that will interfere with their entry into the Strip and their work,” he writes, citing the concerns of a senior employee in an aid organization.
  • Already, the paper reports, those entering Gaza are being given extra scrutiny: “Foreigners who entered the Gaza Strip last week reported more exacting questioning than usual at Hamas’ border control position and strict identity checks of passengers at checkpoints within the Strip.”

7. Free the pics: Wikimedia Israel is in the midst of a massive (and formerly secret) operation to make some 28,000 images from pre-state days available online.

  • The images had been held by state archives and not made very accessible, despite legally being public domain, which is where they are now being released.
  • Why the secrecy? Michal Lester, executive director at Wikimedia Israel, tells The Media Line that it’s because an experimental technology was used to find the photos:
  • “We used a new technological tool that took pictures from all these different archives, all the while ensuring that they are copyright-free,” she says. “We believe that these photos are an integral part of the history of those living here and around the globe. It’s very important for us that they be free for the public to use so that’s why we uploaded them to Wikimedia Commons.”
  • Haaretz’s Ofer Aderet, also writing about the project, reports that state archivists are annoyed about the project, calling it “theft,” but Wikimedia lawyer Yonatan Klinger disagrees: “When the copyright expires, we are all able to use the pictures, just like we are able to quote from the poems of Bialik and Tchernichovsky or play Mozart and Bach.”
  • For now the site is only available in Hebrew, but you can still check it out here.

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