Something very strange is going on in the run-up to Israel’s election.
On Thursday night, shortly before rocket fire on Tel Aviv from Gaza remade the news agenda for the next few hours, Channel 12 opened its main broadcast with the sensational report that Iran had hacked the cellphone of Benny Gantz, the ex-IDF chief of staff whose Blue and White party is polling slightly ahead of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud.
News of the hack had been conveyed to Gantz about five weeks ago by representatives of the Shin Bet intelligence agency, the TV report said, and Gantz had been told that he should assume that any material on his phone was now in the hands of the Iranians and proceed accordingly.
On Friday, Gantz arranged a press conference at the Gaza border — his first since entering the campaign in January — at which he apparently intended to talk primarily about Netanyahu’s ostensibly failed policy on Gaza in the wake of the rocket fire. Rather naturally, however, he was asked mainly about the phone hack. Irritated, he dealt brusquely with the questions.
He complained bitterly that the journalists shouldn’t be asking him about this “crazy political gossip” when they should be talking to him about the security crisis that had seen Hamas fire two rockets at Tel Aviv for the first time since 2014, when he was helming the IDF during Operation Protective Edge.
He questioned the timing of the leaking of the hack story to Channel 12 — with good reason: less than a month before Israel votes, it was plainly engineered precisely now in order to hurt his chances. He dismissed a question about whether there was any embarrassing content on the phone, saying he would not dignify such “ethical nosiness” with a response. (Haaretz has reported that aides to Netanyahu initially pushed claims the phone contained a sex tape, then back-tracked.) Pushed on whether the phone contained material relating to any relationship with a woman that might be used to extort him, Gantz was curt. There was nothing over which he could be extorted, he said. “The phone isn’t the story,” he insisted.
But the phone might well be the story. It is a story that has the potential to deeply impact what is proving to be a bitterly fought election campaign — a campaign in which Gantz has been leading the most robust challenge to Netanyahu in years. And, as of this writing, it is a story full of puzzling elements, unanswered questions, and an ineffectual response by Blue and White.
For a start, is the story true? Was Gantz’s phone hacked, and if so, was it hacked by Iran?
Gantz’s No. 2, Yair Lapid, appeared to acknowledge, in a Channel 12 interview on Saturday night, that the hacking took place, and that Gantz told his party leadership colleagues about it after the Shin Bet approached him with the news. Lapid also appeared to acknowledge that Iran was responsible, but said this was unremarkable. Iranian hacking efforts are relentless, he noted. And Gantz, who Lapid pointed out has taken all necessary security precautions throughout a life in the military, “of course” had nothing of sensitivity on his phone.
Gantz’s No. 3, Moshe Ya’alon, by contrast, stated flatly on Channel 13 on Friday night that Iran was not behind the hack.
Confused? We all are.
If it wasn’t Iran, then who did hack Gantz’s phone? Ex-Labor MK Erel Margalit, a tech entrepreneur, has implied that the Netanyahu campaign is behind the whole thing, while also warning darkly and confusingly about external players. In this context, Channel 12 quoted unnamed cyber experts Saturday night claiming Russia has developed the expertise to hack into people’s phones with so-called “zero click” technology, and has in turn supplied this technology to Iran. (Zero click technology provides access to a phone’s content without the victim doing anything at all — not even clicking on a malicious link.) Shin Bet chief Nadav Argaman warned in January that an unnamed foreign power was trying to meddle in the elections. Russia, unbidden, rushed to deny it was doing any such thing.
Next question: What was on the phone? Gantz’s Blue and White party is alleging that Netanyahu and the Likud party are behind the initial leak to Channel 12 — not the hack, but the leaked report — and also that one or more aides to Netanyahu subsequently briefed additional reporters about the story, adding false information about what was hacked, to embarrass Gantz.
On Saturday night, it might be noted in this regard, Channel 12 featured a photograph on screen of Gantz with his wife Revital as it reported on the story. It also quoted unnamed security sources saying that while there was no sensitive security information on Gantz’s phone, the incident was “a personal embarrassment” for him. It did not elaborate.
Further questions: Have other leading Israeli politicians’ phones been hacked? The Ynet news site reported Friday that a second politician, this one a member of the high-level security cabinet, was recently informed of efforts to hack his phone. Who is this politician? How widespread is the phenomenon? Perhaps the Shin Bet ought to be updating the public about the danger, and detailing the specifics.
At this point, you might ask, who cares? So Iran did or didn’t hack Gantz’s phone, but nobody is alleging — at this stage, at least — that any sensitive security material was compromised.
Well, quite apart from what may yet develop as the story moves forward, it already risks damaging Gantz’s credibility and thus his prime ministerial candidacy. The implication of the story is that the man who would be prime minister of Israel has turned out to be vulnerable to a cyberattack mounted by the dangerous enemies of Israel in Tehran. How, by extension, Gantz’s rivals would have Israelis ask themselves, could such a man be trusted with the stewardship of the nation?
Netanyahu’s prime strategy in facing down the Gantz challenge has been to claim that the Blue and White leadership quartet — Gantz, Lapid, Ya’alon and Gabi Ashkenazi — are a collection of weak leftists who will endanger Israel if put in charge. Such an argument has lacked a certain credibility given that Gantz, Ya’alon and Ashkenazi are all former IDF chiefs of staff, Ya’alon was also Netanyahu’s defense minister, and Gantz’s declared positions on the Palestinian conflict are if anything more hawkish than Netanyahu’s. But if Gantz has been already compromised by Iran, the effort to discredit him gains ground.
As of this writing, Likud has not made that specific argument. It has made one that is still more devastating. In a campaign video released on Saturday night, it asserted that “the Iranian regime openly supports” Gantz and Lapid.
Polls in the next few days may indicate whether the story is affecting Israelis’ voting preferences. If Blue and White is not concerned about potential echoes of the 2016 US presidential election campaign — when the focus on email leaks from Hillary Clinton contributed to the failure of her candidacy — then it should be. Seeds of doubt were planted in the minds of potential Clinton voters, swaying some of them, and that’s what Gantz’s rivals would like to see happening here now. Gantz’s dismissal of reporters’ questions and his party’s mixed messages about what it believes is really going on here are not helping the public to make sense of what is unfolding. Nor is Blue and White’s on- and off-record casting of blame for the leak in various directions — primarily at Netanyahu and Likud, but also at the National Cyber Directorate that works out of the Prime Minister’s Office, at the Shin Bet and, as of Saturday night, at the Mossad.
The candidate plainly believes that this saga is beneath contempt, and that it is beneath him to dignify it with a detailed narrative of his own. (He presumably felt the same about an incident last month when a woman alleged he exposed himself to her when they were teens in high school, but that was an allegation from decades ago with no supporting evidence, and it has faded away for now.) Gantz evidently feels that after a lifetime of service to this country, he should not have to be dragged down into all this “ethical nosiness.” But for all that one might empathize with his principled sentiments, he’s now on a political battlefield, and if he does not attempt to take charge of the narrative, it will take charge of him.
In a well-remembered 1996 pre-election TV debate with would-be first-time prime minister Netanyahu, incumbent Shimon Peres took a distinctly haughty position, declining to seriously interact with his young, articulate, TV-savvy rival. He had a lifetime of public service behind him, Peres sought to convey, and this whippersnapper wasn’t fit to tie his shoelaces. With many political advantages, notably the fact that he was seeking to retain power having become acting prime minister after Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated, Peres nevertheless lost the election that May to Netanyahu. This was emphatically not solely because of his “how dare you question my credentials?” attitude — four Hamas bus bombings in February and March 1996 were likely the crucial factor — but it certainly didn’t help Peres’s cause.
At his Friday press conference, Gantz noted that “there are two hugely significant events here” in the run-up to polling day on April 9, “and I suggest that no one blur them: There is a war over our home, and another about democracy and ethics.” On this latter struggle, he said, “I know that I am to pay a hard price [for having entered politics]. I know that I am playing against people whose ethical boundaries are at rock bottom.”
His handling of the Iran phone hack saga to date would suggest that, such rhetoric apart, Gantz has not yet fully internalized what he is up against.
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