Reports of Spyware Use on Key Witness Roil Netanyahu Trial

The former prime minister is on trial on charges of fraud, accepting bribes

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu
Yonatan Sindel/Pool via AP

Israeli police allegedly used sophisticated spyware against a key witness in the corruption trial of former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Israeli media reported, jolting the trial and shining a light on a contentious Israeli-developed surveillance tool.

Netanyahu is in the midst of a lengthy corruption trial over charges of fraud, breach of trust and accepting bribes in three separate cases. In the initial report by Israeli Channel 13 last week, police were said to have used spyware to collect information off the witness' phone without first obtaining authorization, sparking an uproar.

Netanyahu's lawyers have demanded answers from the state about what was gathered and how. The report has reenergized Netanyahu's supporters, who have long seen the trial as part of a conspiracy to topple the polarizing former leader. Even Netanyahu’s political opponents are outraged.

“This is an earthquake that would justify a governmental commission of inquiry,” Cabinet Minister Tamar Zandberg, who sits in the coalition that ousted Netanyahu last year, told Israeli Army Radio Sunday. That the spyware was likely Israeli-developed was a “point of shame,” she said.

Amnon Lord, a columnist at the pro-Netanyahu Israel Hayom daily, called for a mistrial.

The witness whose phone was reportedly hacked, Shlomo Filber, is expected to testify in the coming days and Netanyahu's lawyers are expected to request a delay to his testimony. It remains unclear whether any of the evidence allegedly gathered was used against Netanyahu.

Police, as well as a lawyer for Netanyahu, did not respond to a request for comment. But last week, Netanyahu, who was ousted last June by a new coalition government, accused police in a Twitter post of illegally hacking into a phone “to topple a strong, right-wing prime minister.”

Israel’s Justice Ministry declined to comment.

State prosecutors have told Netanyahu’s lawyers that they are “thoroughly examining” the reports, according to internal communications seen by The Associated Press.

The report comes after Israeli newspaper Calcalist reported that Israeli police tracked targets without proper authorization. Last week, Israel’s national police force said it had found evidence pointing to improper use of the spyware by its own investigators to snoop on Israeli citizens’ phones. The revelations shocked Israelis and prompted condemnations from across the political spectrum.

Authorities have not said which spyware might have been improperly used.

But the Calcalist report said at least some of the cases involved the Israeli company NSO.

NSO is Israel’s best-known maker of offensive cyberware, but it is far from the only one. Its flagship product, Pegasus, allows operators to seamlessly infiltrate a target’s mobile phone and gain access to the device’s contents, including messages and contacts, as well as location history.

NSO has faced mounting scrutiny over Pegasus, which has been linked to snooping on human rights activists, journalists and politicians across the globe in countries such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

NSO says all of its sales are approved by Israel's Defense Ministry. Such sales have reportedly played a key role in Israel's development of ties with Arab states in the Gulf.

Aluf Benn, editor of the Haaretz daily, said it was a surprising twist that Netanyahu was now portraying himself as a victim.

“What an irony: The man who leveraged Pegasus for foreign-policy gains now believes he lost his domestic power on account of the spyware,” he wrote.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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