Bar Lev to form commission to examine police NSO affair

Last week, the attorney-general appointed a team to investigate wiretapping allegations made against the police.

Public Security Minister Omer Bar Lev and Israel Police Chief Kobi Shabtai attend a ceremony of Israel Police (photo credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/FLASH90)
Public Security Minister Omer Bar Lev and Israel Police Chief Kobi Shabtai attend a ceremony of Israel Police
(photo credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/FLASH90)

Public Security Minister Omer Bar Lev announced on Monday that he would be forming a government commission of inquiry to examine allegations that police targeted civilians with the NSO Group's Pegasus spyware, sparking an uproar as politicians and activists demanded the establishment of an independent commission.

The commission will be led by a retired judge and Bar Lev said he intends to ask Justice Minister Gideon Sa'ar to provide a draft resolution for the committee to be given the main powers of a state commission of inquiry so that it can summon witnesses, investigate them and seize documents.

The announcement comes after a Calcalist report revealed a new list of alleged targets ranging from politicians to businessmen to protest leaders. The Pegasus spyware is capable of remotely and covertly extracting information from targets' cell phones, including texts, browser history, call history and screenshots, among other information.

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The new report by Calcalist claims that the police's special operations cyber unit used Pegasus for years against civilians without obtaining court approval and in direct violation of the law. The technology was used for intelligence gathering and not for gathering evidence.

 Israel Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai visits at a temporary roadblock on Highway 1 outside Jerusalem (credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90) Israel Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai visits at a temporary roadblock on Highway 1 outside Jerusalem (credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)

Bar Lev stressed that the emerging evidence indicated that the alleged failures occurred under previous police commissioners, previous public security ministers and previous governments.

"I look directly at you, the citizens of Israel, and I promise you - the examination committee will examine in depth all the allegations," said the public security minister. "Under my watch, these failures will not happen - the police are under my responsibility and my authority and I will make sure that if there has been a violation of democracy that has happened in previous years, I will denounce it and not let it happen."

The Darkenu movement expressed outrage at Bar Lev's announcement, stressing that an independent state commission of inquiry must examine the issue. The movement advised that the commission should include former Supreme Court president Edna Arbel, a senior security figure such as Maj.-Gen. Gadi Eisenkot and a journalist and public representative such as Tomer Ganon and Orly Barlev.

A government commission of inquiry is different from a state commission of inquiry in that a minister has jurisdiction over the commission and determines its members. While it can be granted the investigative powers of a state commission, it still sits under the relevant minister. A state commission of inquiry, on the other hand, is completely independent from any minister, with the president of the Supreme Court appointing its members.

During a cabinet meeting on Monday afternoon, a number of ministers, including Housing Minister Ze'ev Elkin and Sa'ar, demanded that a state commission of inquiry be established. Elkin tweeted afterwards that Bar Lev had told the cabinet that he was not opposed to establishing a state commission of inquiry on the matter.

Bar Lev tweeted on Monday afternoon that no matter what kind of commission is formed, it will also investigate things that haven't been published. "We will check if political entities were behind the breaches of phones belonging to [Defense Minister Benny] Gantz, Sa'ar and additional politicians. The event is still at its beginning and at the end we will arrive at the truth. We will eradicate the corruption and keep the democracy. That is a promise."

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett called the allegations against police "very serious," saying that tools such as Pegasus are important for the fight against terrorism, but are not intended for widespread use against civilians or public figures.

The government “needs to understand exactly what happened,” Bennett said, but would not specify what kind of inquiry would take place.

Bennett pointed to the upcoming appointment of Gali Baharav-Miara as the new attorney-general, saying he saw it as an advantage that she was not within the system during the time in question. The prime minister added that he would meet with the new Baharav-Miara and the relevant minister in the coming hours to consult on the matter.

Foreign Minister Yair Lapid stressed that a commission of inquiry should be established by the end of this week, adding that "the first interrogee of the commission of inquiry should be Amir Ohana. There is such a thing as ministerial responsibility. It happened on their shift. They need to give answers to the public." Ohana has led both the Justice Ministry and the Public Security Ministry in past governments.

Defense Minister Benny Gantz applauded Bar Lev's decision, saying that he was worried about innocent citizens being harmed by the process. 

Earlier, Israel Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai had responded to the Calcalist report by urging Bar Lev to order the formation of an external and independent judicial review committee to examine the issue "in order to restore the public's trust in Israel Police on the one hand and to regulate the use of technologies in Israel Police on the other."

"To the extent that the committee finds irregularities and failures they will be dealt with in accordance with the law," added Shabtai.

President Isaac Herzog responded to report while speaking at at the B'Sheva conference on Monday saying, "This is not an easy day. The law enforcement system can not be careless when it comes to following the law. We must not lose our democracy. We must not lose our police. And certainly - we must not lose the public's trust in them. This requires a thorough and foundational examination."

"If these things are right then we are talking about an earthquake, acts that fit dark regimes from the previous century that we must not be like," said Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked in response to the report on Monday. "Mass intrusion into the privacy of many people is lawlessness that must be stopped today. An external commission of inquiry is required, not for these purposes did the police buy these software. The Knesset and the entire public deserve answers, today."

Finance Minister Avigdor Liberman called the matter "an earthquake at a 9 on the Richer scale," adding that he had been wiretapped in 2010. He argued that the 2010 affair was whitewashed and that the same must not happen this time around, and said that he would demand a national investigation committee, the highest possible level of investigation.

Joint List MK Ahmad Tibi also responded to the report tweeting "now the split is clear: the police wiretap the Jews, the Shin Bet wiretaps the Arabs."

Joint List chairman Ayman Odeh linked the report to the fight against crime in Arab-Israeli society, tweeting "For months, the police have been telling us that if we just release them from the restraints of democracy and allow them to use Shin Bet surveillance and search homes without a warrant, they will be able to defeat crime in Arab society. Now the lie has been exposed: they already had the anti-democratic tools, what the police lack is only the will."

Chairman of the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee MK Gilad Kariv also called for the formation of a state commission of inquiry into the case. "It is not possible to be satisfied with the internal investigation team of the Justice Ministry, in part because the supervision of police action must also be examined."

"The appointment of a retired judge to head the commission of inquiry will, by law, allow the committee to be given the powers of a state commission of inquiry - this is the necessary step at this time," added Kariv.

Otzma Yehudit head Itamar Ben-Gvir also called for the establishment of a state commission of inquiry, saying that those responsible must stand trial and that "this is a very serious incident and it does not matter if the tracking was carried out against left, right or social activists. Civil rights are civil rights and we need to protect them."

The Movement for Quality Government in Israel welcomed the calls for a state commission of inquiry into the issue "as we have already demanded with the initial report - there is no escape from the establishment of such a committee."

"According to the reports, this is a very serious case in which the police set the law for itself and spied on civilians illegally, without a court order and without an investigation being opened against them," added the movement. "In this regard, no matter if it is a demonstrator or a public servant - the injury is equally serious and requires immediate investigation...The State of Israel is a democracy and not a police state - a government commission of inquiry now!"

MK Yariv Levin proposed at the Likud party meeting on Monday afternoon that Herzog, a figure accepted by all of the Knesset factions, should be the one to nominate the members of a state commission of inquiry, along with one member of the coalition and one member of the opposition.

Attorney-General Avichai Mandelblit's office had announced last week that he had appointed a team to investigate the wiretapping allegations, to be headed by Deputy Attorney-General Amit Marari. The team will submit its findings by July 1. The statement by Mandelblit's office noted that additional findings had been revealed by the Police.

Lahav Harkov contributed to this report.