August 2, 2021

After the Pegasus scandal, the discretion of the Israeli government

On Wednesday, July 21, during a cybersecurity conference in Tel Aviv, the head of the Israeli government, Naftali Bennett, did not have a single word for the Pegasus scandal. Since the start of the week, the country’s political leaders have been keeping a low profile; newspapers, except daily Haaretz, which is part of the consortium behind the revelations, quickly moved on.

Yet the NSO company, although private, does not act without the control of the Israeli government: to export its software, as with any sale of arms abroad, it must obtain the green light from the Ministry of Defense. Which made it known on Tuesday, through the voice of his minister, Benny Gantz, that he was ” studying “ the charges against the group based in Herzliya. “The State of Israel allows exports of cybertechnology products only to governments, only for lawful use, and only to prevent or investigate crimes and acts of terrorism.”, he defended himself. Israel claims to have “No access to information gathered by NSO clients”.

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Behind the scenes, however, the government is said to have set up an inter-ministerial team, under the orders of the National Security Council, to seize the case – just to be ready, in case of diplomatic repercussions. Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz of the left-wing Meretz party was to call for « clarifications » on the Benny Gantz case on Thursday; one of the deputies of his political formation demands the suspension of the export licenses of the NSO. But the rest of the politicians are largely silent, starting with the other minister (for the environment) from Meretz, Tamar Zandberg, who had nevertheless tried to lobby against the cybersurveillance company in court in 2017, after revelations about the use of Pegasus against human rights defenders, journalists and parliamentarians in Mexico.

An invisible weapon

Today at the head of the government, Naftali Bennett had thought, at the end of March 2020, of calling on the NSO to set up a system to assess, in real time, the probability, for each Israeli citizen, of be infected with Covid-19. He was then Minister of Defense and the idea was quickly abandoned. Haaretz had in the process revealed that Mr. Bennett was an acquaintance of the president of NSO, Shiri Dolev, also very close to his political ally, Ayelet Shaked, now Minister of the Interior. In 2017, on a television set, she was thus presented as her best friend, according to the daily.

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