Netanyahu to address mass rally against 'spying on Israeli citizens'

Attempts were made to hack the cellphones of Shlomo Filber, Iris Elovitch and third person.

 Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivers a statement before entering the district court room where he is facing a trial for alleged corruption crimes, in Jerusalem May 24 2020.  (photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/REUTERS)
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivers a statement before entering the district court room where he is facing a trial for alleged corruption crimes, in Jerusalem May 24 2020.
(photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/REUTERS)

In a rare appearance at a political demonstration, opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu will deliver the keynote address at Thursday night’s rally in Tel Aviv’s Habima Square calling for a state commission of inquiry to probe the cellphone hacking scandal.

“Something awful happened here,” Netanyahu said in a video he posted promoting the event. “The police spied on Israeli citizens, for many purposes, including political. We want a different country – a country with real rule of law, and not a country of falsehoods, lies and cover-ups.”

Netanyahu has been criticized for sending activists who support him to face off against left-wingers at protests without going himself. He has not addressed a demonstration since three days before the 2015 election. But polls have indicated that his base is upset about the scandal, so he has demanded that every Likud MK attend the protest.

There will be 110 buses bringing people from across the country to the demonstration, which will also be addressed by Religious Zionist Party leader Bezalel Smotrich.

The state prosecution informed the Jerusalem District Court presiding over the trial of Netanyahu that no laws had been broken by law enforcement relating to the cellphone hacking scandal, and requested that hearing witnesses be continued immediately.

 A man walks past the logo of Israeli cyber firm NSO Group at one of its branches in the Arava Desert, southern Israel July 22, 2021 (credit: REUTERS/AMIR COHEN) A man walks past the logo of Israeli cyber firm NSO Group at one of its branches in the Arava Desert, southern Israel July 22, 2021 (credit: REUTERS/AMIR COHEN)

For the first time, the prosecution formally admitted on Wednesday of the attempted hackings of the cellphones of former Netanyahu aide turned state’s witness Shlomo Filber, of an unnamed witness (with information suggesting another former top Netanyahu aide turned state’s witness, Ari Harow) and of defendant Iris Elovitch.

Iris, the wife of Bezeq and Walla owner Shaul Elovitch, was allegedly directly involved in facilitating the media bribery scheme.

The prosecution reported that the attempt to hack Iris’ cellphone failed, and that no information was hacked from the third-party witness (it was unclear if this was because the hack failed or became unnecessary).

Regarding Filber, the prosecution said that the court order it received allowed hacking between February 11 and March 6, and that the hack took place on February 15 between 12:24 p.m. and 4:55 p.m.

Prosecutors said the hack involved copying his contact list and copying other information that had not been noted or known about for purposes of the court order that permitted the hack.

The statement by the prosecution did not provide a breakdown of what action it took against Filber’s computer versus his cellphone.

Defense lawyers for Netanyahu and Elovitch jumped on the admissions of hacking, saying that aspects of the hack of Filber had gone beyond the court order, which demanded an external probe of the police action.

They said that the police have constantly concealed illegal activity, including from the prosecution, and cannot be trusted to have checked their own action in this case.

The prosecution had told the court on Sunday that there was no illegal police cellphone hacking without court orders.

However, at the same time, the prosecution had requested that the judges grant it an extension until Wednesday to fully report regarding those instances in which the police did use or try to use some version of Pegasus legally.

State prosecutors also asked for the same extension to respond to defense lawyers’ demands for a larger report, including all related original and classified materials.

It has been known for a week that the police used technology to hack Filber’s cellphone.

The prosecution claimed last week that this was only done after a court order had already granted the police access to Filber’s cellphone, which he had handed over to law enforcement.

Though the third person was left anonymous by the prosecution, there has been speculation that it was Harow.

Harow’s cellphone recordings served as much of the basis for Case 2000, and there was a separate personal case against him at the time relating to his company 3H Global.

3H Global was specifically mentioned by the prosecution as being a case that was checked for cellphone hacking – and is the only case mentioned that is not directly part of the Netanyahu cases.

Harow cut a plea deal that included a significant fine but has denied any wrongdoing.

THE DEBATE now shifts to how much the police hackings of cellphones went beyond the court order, and whether that had any impact on the trial.

The prosecution said on Sunday that there had been no impact on the trial, adding on Wednesday that it has had access to NSO Groups’ analysis of the issue.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett instructed the Mossad and the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) last week to assist Deputy Attorney-General Amit Marari in double-checking answers provided by the police.

Despite all of the above, the defense is unlikely to take the state’s word for it.

Part of the reason the prosecution asked for a delay was to undertake a process with the Public Security Ministry to declassify and censor certain items for the defense and the public.

According to the prosecution, the review covered over 1,500 cellphones of persons connected with cases 1000 (the “Illegal Gifts Affair”), 2000 (“the Yediot Aharonot-Yisrael Hayom Affair”), 4000 (the “Bezeq-Walla Affair”), 1270 (the “Attorney-General Bribery Affair,” which was closed) and “Old Case 1000” (a case of alleged illegal gifts that was closed and left out of the indictment).

The Likud and the other right-wing parties in the opposition released a joint statement on Sunday rejecting the findings of the task force Bennett appointed. The parties called for the immediate formation of a state commission of inquiry to investigate police spying on Israeli citizens.

“The citizens of Israel are still waiting to find out who was spied on, how much, who ordered it, and who was in on the secret,” the parties said. “The police cannot investigate themselves in a shallow manner with no one questioned under caution.”

Lawyers for the defendants had demeaned the prosecution as repeatedly failing to come out straight and admit that it had illegally been hacking those involved in the case, as well as when and who ordered it.

The trial has been stalled since Monday of last week, when cable authority legal adviser Dana Neufeld’s testimony was halted in the middle after the sides ran into disagreements on whether the prosecution could ask her about texts she received from Filber.

The defense said that not only could Filber not testify until the cloud of alleged illegal police spying was removed, but that no witness could be asked about anything coming from his cellphone.

The prosecution responded on Wednesday that the texts between Neufeld and Filber were all acquired within the authority of the court order.

Separately, the prosecution said that other evidence was acquired after the expiration of the court order, but only from material that had been properly copied to police servers during the period of the court order.

The government and the police have been signaling a counterattack since the end of last week to clear the police of most of the charges in the spying scandal alleged by Calcalist.

The court’s initial instinct last week was to continue to hear witnesses, making it that much harder for the defense to convince the court to halt the trial much beyond a week or so of debate over the prosecution’s explanations.