Why are Israel's tech advantages treated differently by the world? - comment

During the last decade, Netanyahu -- as prime minister -- leveraged Israel's technological advantages to fundamentally change Israel's relationship with numerous countries around the world.

An aerial view shows the logo of Israeli cyber firm NSO Group at one of its branches in the Arava Desert, southern Israel, July 22, 2021. (photo credit: REUTERS/AMIR COHEN)
An aerial view shows the logo of Israeli cyber firm NSO Group at one of its branches in the Arava Desert, southern Israel, July 22, 2021.
(photo credit: REUTERS/AMIR COHEN)

It’s a problem that Israel and its supporters abroad know all too well: certain actions that are okay for other countries and groups are not acceptable when it comes to Israel and the Jews.

For instance, lobbies.

Countries from every corner of the world spend millions of dollars each year to try and influence US policy.  Various countries spent an estimated $3.1 billion in lobbying efforts in Washington from 2016 to 2021. The top five spending countries were Japan, China, South Korea, Qatar, and Russia.  But don’t expect to read books about how they control American foreign policy, those types of books are reserved for Israel, whose lobbying efforts are always painted as somehow shady.

Or take political donations to support candidates whose positions are supportive of a particular cause. In the US some donors give to candidates who support gun laws, or environmental issues, or abortion  – but when pro-Israel donors financially back pro-Israel candidates, then suddenly something smells wrong.

Or take Israel’s Law of Return, giving descendants of one Jewish grandparent the right to citizenship. Israel is by no means the only country in the world that gives preferential citizenship to one ethnic group over another. Armenia gives preferential treatment to ethnic Armenians born abroad seeking to move to Armenia, as does Germany to some ethnic Germans, Greece to Greeks in the diaspora, and Ireland to any person with a grandparent born on the Irish isle. Only, however, when it comes to Israel is it somehow racist.

 Likud head Benjamin Netanyahu at his party faction meeting, December 13, 2021. (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST) Likud head Benjamin Netanyahu at his party faction meeting, December 13, 2021. (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)

And on and on it goes. All countries use lifestyle, culture and sport to promote themselves, but when Israel does it is accused of “pinkwashing” or, more recently “sportswashing.”

Many countries have a state or established religion, or have a religion granted a special status, and no one makes a fuss: Cambodia, Thailand, Malta, Argentina, England,  Italy, Greece, Georgia and of course Muslim countries – Afghanistan, Algeria, Bahrain, Iran, Jordan, Saudi Arabia to name just a few. But only Israel gets tagged racist for defining itself as a Jewish, democratic state.

To this long list of double standards, now add this: Many other countries can use arms sales as a tool of diplomacy, but when Israel does, it is somehow manipulative, cunning, underhanded and downright bad.

That, at least, is the tone of reaction to a recent New York Times magazine piece detailing how Israel has used the sale of NSO Group’s controversial spyware Pegasus to improve its diplomatic standing.

“The Battle for the World’s Most Powerful Cyberweapon,” reads the headline, with the underline being: “A Times investigation reveals how Israel reaped diplomatic gains around the world  from NSO Pegasus spyware – a tool America itself purchased but is now trying to ban.”

While the lengthy story states that “selling weapons for diplomatic ends has long been a tool of statecraft,” the backlash to the story is that somehow there is something nefarious about this practice when Israel does it.

Few bat an eyelash when the US and France sell billions of dollars worth of arms to countries around the globe to gain influence with those countries   – including to countries with spotty human rights records – not knowing precisely how those arms are being used. Fewer still make any noise when Russia and China do the same thing.

But when Israel does it, it is a different story, and becomes a huge story.

According to the Times piece,  Mexico, Panama, and India changed their voting patterns toward Israel at the UN after buying Pegasus, (though reading the article one could get the mistaken impression that this somehow tipped the overwhelmingly anti-Israel tilt in the General Assembly and the Security Council, or that these countries consistently voted with Israel  – which they did not).

And, according to the piece, Saudi Arabia even allowed Israeli planes to fly through its airspace once former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu stepped in to secure a renewal of the spyware license for that country in 2019, after it was rejected by NGO’s ethics committee.

Coincidentally, on Sunday – as the piece appeared in Sunday’s Times – President Isaac Herzog flew through Saudi Airspace on the way to the United Arab Emirates, and said doing so was “a very moving moment.”

“Cyberweapons have changed international relations more profoundly than any advance since the advent of the atomic bomb,” the article read.  If that is indeed the case, then Israelis should be applauding that their country is a world leader in developing these cyber tools. This is something to be proud of, not apologize for.

For decades Israelis bewailed their misfortune that while the Arab countries had oil which they used effectively to sway international opinion against the Jewish state, Israel had no natural resource of its own that the world needed and would impact its view of the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Israel was not going to win friends and get backing on the world stage because it exported Jaffe oranges or Epilady hair removal devices.

But now it does have something that the world needs – technology:  water technology, agricultural technology, health technology, military technology, and – yes – spycraft technology that has been artfully used to change the attitudes of many countries, including countries in the Arab world, toward Israel. That isn’t scandalous, that is good diplomacy.

During the last decade, Netanyahu  as prime minister leveraged Israel’s technological advantages to fundamentally change Israel’s relationship with numerous countries around the world. That’s good, not bad.  That’s not manipulative, that’s not buying friends, that’s good statecraft.

That being said, Pegasus is the type of cyber weapon that gives Israel a tremendous advantage, but it needs to be effectively regulated. It is a powerful cyber tool that can suck out all the information from even the most encrypted cell phone, and as such can be used to fight terror, drugs and crime – which it has done. But it can also be used to spy on political opponents, journalists and activists – which it also has done.  

Over the last few months it has been known more for the latter, than for the former, and has cast Israel in a negative light, rather than a positive one, especially as the US has banned trade with the company.

But there, too, the motivation might be more one of trying to upend competition, than a point of high principle, especially since the US, according to the Times article, wanted the tool as well.

If Israel’s minds have figured out a way to get around encryption and hack into all cellphones, then they should also be able to come up with a way to effectively regulate to whom it is sold and how it is used. This type of blue-and-white technology gives Israel incomparable advantages, both operative advantages in its battle against its enemies and diplomatic advantages in having something others want and need.

It would be a shame if those advantages – ones which Israel’s enemies would love to see it lose – would be squandered because of a lack of effective control and regulation.