Former Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit reportedly ordered police to suspend “offensive” use of NSO Group’s Pegasus spyware until an inquiry into its use is completed.
Mandelblit made the decision in his last days in office before retiring at the end of January, Channel 12 news reported on Monday.
The move came alongside his decision to open an internal probe into the use of the spyware.
Police have been accused of not only using the program to listen in on suspects, but to vacuum any data from phones they spied on.
A bombshell Calcalist report alleged Monday that police used the Pegasus spyware to hack into the phones of government officials, mayors, activists, journalists, and family members and advisers of former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, all without judicial approval or oversight.
According to the report, police used the software to hack into the phones of the then-directors general of the finance, justice, communication and transportation ministries; prominent businessman Rami Levy; Ilan Yeshua, the former CEO of Walla and currently a top witness in the trial against Netanyahu; Netanya Mayor Miriam Feirberg; Avner Netanyahu, the son of the former prime minister; leaders of Ethiopian-Israeli protests against police; and many others.
In all, police used Pegasus to hack into the phones of dozens of people not suspected of crimes, without any judicial oversight, Calcalist claimed, without provided evidence or sources. The report did not specify when the alleged hacking took place, but reported that it went on for several years.
According to the news site, police did not seek judicial approval for the move because they did not believe it would be granted.
Following the first half of the report published last month, the police force denied that it had utilized the spyware against citizens not suspected of crimes, and said any usage was fully approved. But weeks later, police admitted that “additional findings were discovered that change the state of affairs in certain aspects,” and said they would cooperate with all investigations.
Just before leaving office, former attorney general Avichai Mandelblit appointed the members of a committee of inquiry into the issue, headed by Deputy Attorney General Amit Marari.
On Monday morning, Israel Police spokesman Eli Levy told the Kan public broadcaster that the police “were not responding to any reports.” He said that since the news first broke, the police have been open “to a full transparent investigation.” Levy claimed that so far there had been “no defect found in the work of police. Everything was done legally with a signed order from the court.”
Those targeted also included West Bank settlers just ahead of scheduled evacuations of illegal outposts; Netanyahu advisers Yonatan Urich and Topaz Luk; the mayors of Holon, Kiryat Ata and Mevaseret Zion; leaders of disability rights protests, and others.
Calcalist pointed the finger for such acts at former Israel Police commissioner Roni Alsheich, who served from 2015 to 2018 having previously been the deputy head of the Shin Bet security service; at the then-head of the police technology department Yosef Kahlon; and at Yoav Hassan, head of its SIGINT division.
Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked said Monday morning that if the report is true, “it is an earthquake, with actions befitting oppressive regimes from a century ago.”
Shaked said the claims demand an outside investigation: “The Knesset and the entire public deserve answers — today.”
Speaking at a conference Monday morning, President Isaac Herzog said that the claims demand “an in-depth and thorough investigation.”
“We cannot lose our democracy,” Herzog said. “We cannot lose our police, and we cannot lose public support in them.”
Avner Netanyahu told Army Radio that he was “in shock” over the report. “Apparently it doesn’t matter whether or not I’m involved in politics — it will happen to you too.”
Police allegedly suspected that Sara Netanyahu was at times using Avner’s phone to communicate with certain individuals, and found messages written in the feminine form, Calcalist reported.
Shai Babad, the former Finance Ministry director who was named in the Calcalist report, told Army Radio that if the claims are true, “this is a sad day for Israeli democracy. This is a serious violation of privacy and of public officials.” Babad said he never expected to be followed or spied on, “and definitely not by the police.”
According to Calcalist, Babad and his successor, former Finance Ministry director Keren Terner Eyal, were both targeted after they were suspected of leaking documents to journalists.
Emi Palmor, a former director-general of the Justice Ministry who was also reportedly targeted, headed a committee on eradicating racism against Israelis of Ethiopian descent that was critical of the police.
The list also included a series of figures who today are tied to Netanyahu’s ongoing criminal trial, some of whom had been named in previous reports on the alleged abuse by police of spyware: Shlomo Filber, the former Communications Ministry director general; Iris Elovitch, the wife of Shaul Elovitch, the former controlling shareholder of Bezeq, who are both defendants in Case 4000; former Bezeq CEOs Dudu Mizrachi and Stella Hendler; former Walla editor-in-chief Aviram Elad, and other journalists at Walla.
In Case 4000, one of the three graft cases for which the former prime minister is on trial, Netanyahu is alleged to have advanced regulatory decisions as communications minister and prime minister that immensely benefited Shaul Elovitch, the former controlling shareholder of Bezeq, the country’s largest telecommunications firm. In exchange, Netanyahu allegedly was given what amounted to editorial control over Elovitch’s Walla news site. The former premier denies the charges against him.
Following news last week that Filber — who is currently testifying in the Netanyahu corruption trial — was allegedly spied upon, attorneys in the case are reportedly considering requesting a delay in proceedings.
But Kan news reported that as of Sunday evening, prosecutors believed any improper use of spyware technology was not tied to evidence used in the case.
Pegasus is considered one of the most powerful cyber-surveillance tools available on the market, giving operators the ability to effectively take full control of a target’s phone, download all data from the device, and activate its camera or microphone without the user knowing.
The news was condemned by a wide range of lawmakers and public officials across the political spectrum, who called the report disturbing and deeply concerning.
The revelation came as politicians shifted from making do with a limited probe to calling for a full-on state inquiry into the matter.
Speaking to reporters, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett defended the use of the spyware, but emphasized that it must be regulated and police officers must be properly trained in its use.
“You want a tool like that when fighting crime families and serious crime. I do not want to give up the tool itself, but to regulate its use,” he said.
Bennett said that while Pegasus and other similar spyware programs “are important tools in the fight against terror and serious crime, they are not intended for widespread ‘fishing’ among Israeli citizens or public figures in the State of Israel, so we need to understand exactly what happened.”
Bennett added that he would consult newly appointed Attorney General Gali Baharav-Miara on how to deal with the issue.
“We understand the seriousness of the matter. We will not leave it unanswered,” he concluded.