- Police illegally use Pegasus malware to hack into public figures’ phones.
- Pegasus has also been used against Netanyahu’s advisers, as well as activists, senior government officials, businessmen and others.
- Bennett vows his administration “will not leave this without response”.
JERUSALEM: Israel’s domestic espionage scandal escalated Monday, with Prime Minister Naftali Bennett promising the government to take action after new reports that police were illegally using the Pegasus malware to hack into the phones of dozens of prominent figures.
Business’s latest bombshell daily Calcalist alleged that Pegasus was used against a son of former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his advisers, as well as against activists, senior government officials, businessmen and others.
Calcalist had previously reported that the controversial malware, which can turn a phone into a pocket spy device, was being used by police against leaders of an anti-Netanyahu protest movement.
After Monday’s report came out, Bennett vowed that his administration “will not leave this unanswered”.
“The reports apparently describe a very serious situation that is unacceptable in a democracy,” Bennett said.
“These cyber tools are designed to fight terrorism and serious crime and should not be used against civilians. We will ensure a transparent, thorough and prompt investigation because we all – citizens of the State of Israel, ministers and all institutions – deserve answers.”
While Bennett promised action, Public Safety Secretary Omer Barlev, who oversees the police, said he would seek approval for a government commission of inquiry.
Barlev said that, if approved, the investigation would be led by a retired judge to uncover “violations of civil rights and privacy.”
Pegasus, a malware product made by Israeli company NSO, has been at the center of an international scandal that has lasted months after revelations that it has been used by governments around the world to spy on activists, politicians, journalists and even heads of state.
Israel has come under fire for allowing the export of the invasive technology to states with a bad human rights record, but the Calcalist reports have unleashed domestic outcry.
President Isaac Herzog suggested that the credibility of key Israeli institutions was at stake.
“We must not lose our democracy. We must not lose our police. And we certainly must not lose the public’s trust in them. This requires an in-depth and thorough investigation,” Herzog said.
Calcalist said dozens of people were targeted who were not suspected of criminal behavior, and without the necessary court approval from the police.
Among them are senior leaders from the ministries of Finance, Justice and Communications, supermarket magnate Rami Levy, mayors, Ethiopian-Israelis who led protests against alleged police misconduct, and former Netanyahu advisers Topaz Luk and Jonatan Urich.
Avner Netanyahu, one of the prime minister’s sons, was also on the list. “I am really shocked,” he wrote on Facebook.
In another revelation that would rock Netanyahu’s ongoing corruption trial, Calcalist reported that star witness Ilan Yeshua, former chief executive of the Walla news site, was a target.
Netanyahu is accused of trying to trade regulatory favors with media moguls in exchange for favorable coverage, including on Walla. He denies the allegations.
The Ministry of Justice has confirmed that AFP that the Jerusalem court canceled a hearing in Netanyahu’s trial, scheduled for Tuesday, and ordered prosecutors to answer questions from the former prime minister’s lawyers about the extent of the spying.
The trial also took a hit last week when multiple Israeli broadcasters reported that police may have used spyware on Shlomo Filber, a former Netanyahu ally turned state witness.
Those reports, which Netanyahu described as an “earthquake,” did not mention Pegasus.
NSO has consistently denied doing anything wrong during the multiple-stranded Pegasus scandal, insisting that once it has been sold to customers, it will no longer be using the system and cannot access the collected data.