Pegasus, prices - not Iran, Palestinians, Netanyahu - fire Israelis up

NATIONAL AFFAIRS: The Pegasus phone hacking scandal raises issues that go way beyond the former prime minister and touch on the nature of the country’s democracy and the modus operandi of its police.

Israelis stroll through downtown Jerusalem this week. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/JERUSALEM POST ARCHIVES)
Israelis stroll through downtown Jerusalem this week.

Finally, it happened.

Over the last two weeks, something other than Benjamin Netanyahu – pro or con – succeeded in riling up the nation: price hikes and Pegasus.

True, the Pegasus phone hacking scandal that mushroomed this week with the Calcalist report that the police sucked the contents out of people’s phones without court authorization is tangentially about Netanyahu – how it will affect his trial. But it is only peripherally about Netanyahu. The issues this scandal raise go way beyond the former prime minister and touch on the nature of the country’s democracy and the modus operandi of its police.

And it succeeded in rousing the nation.

Following one article in Calcalist on Tuesday, which was a bombshell follow-up to the paper’s earlier reports that the police had used the NSO Group’s controversial spyware against Israeli citizens, there was an urgent clamoring for a state commission of inquiry. Horror at allegations that the police, without a court order, used this superpowerful surveillance technology on law-abiding citizens united both sides of the political spectrum.

 PUBLIC SECURITY MINISTER Omer Bar Lev, Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai (center) and head of the Northern Command Police District Shimon Lavie attend a ceremony in Nazareth in November.  (credit: MEIR VAKNIN/FLASH90) PUBLIC SECURITY MINISTER Omer Bar Lev, Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai (center) and head of the Northern Command Police District Shimon Lavie attend a ceremony in Nazareth in November. (credit: MEIR VAKNIN/FLASH90)

Why? Because the police proved to be equal opportunity hackers, going after those on the Right as well as those on the Left, the bareheaded and the kippah clad, protesters for the handicapped as well as protesters for Ethiopian immigrants. Unity at last.

The paroxysm of anger over this issue followed by just a few days an eruption of anger of a different sort: furor at plans to raise the price of pasta. The public watched with relative indifference for months as housing prices skyrocketed and the cost of living soared, but reacted with fury when Osem announced that it would raise its pasta prices – at about the same time that prices of just about everything else seemed to be going up, from gas to electricity, municipal taxes to paper toweling.

Interestingly, the response did not translate into people taking to the streets, as in 2014 when masses protested for lower cottage cheese prices and “social justice.” Rather, this time the anger was channeled into Facebook posts, huge headlines in the newspapers and calls for boycotts by prominent television journalists.

And it worked. Some large food companies announced they were freezing price increases, and on Wednesday Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, Finance Minister Avigdor Liberman and Economy Minister Orna Barbivay unveiled an economic plan that included tax breaks for working parents, tariff reductions on certain commodities, and pledges to work toward decentralizing the economy to allow more imports and greater competition.

In both cases the people were aroused, and the government responded. In the Pegasus scandal the government responded by pledging to set up some sort of commission of inquiry – though the exact nature is yet to be determined – and regarding the runaway price increases, the government responded with a plan to bring down the cost of living.

TELLINGLY, PEOPLE were roused by bread-and-butter issues – prices and privacy. The “bigger” marquee issues the country is dealing with – the ones it has been dealing with for decades and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future – have failed in recent memory to move the public to a similar degree. This is particularly interesting, considering that these are issues of life and death: Iran, for example, and the Palestinians.

As the Pegasus scandal swirled, and prices on seemingly everything rose, the world inched closer toward reviving the Iranian nuclear deal that will lift sanctions on the Islamic Republic and increase the danger to Israel, and the Palestinian issue continued to simmer as three terrorists were killed in a midday operation in Nablus on Wednesday. But none of that excited the public or roused it like Pegasus and price hikes.

There are many reasons why not. First, it has to do with what legendary US speaker of the House Tip O’Neill once said: “All politics is local.”

Explaining this phrase, the statistician Andrew Gelman, quoting from a Wikipedia entry, wrote in 2011 that this phrase “encapsulates the principle that a politician’s success is directly tied to his ability to understand and influence the issues of his constituents. 

Politicians must appeal to the simple, mundane and everyday concerns of those who elect them into office. Those personal issues, rather than big and intangible ideas, are often what voters care most about, according to this principle.”

It’s the everyday stuff that animates people; the bigger issues are just that – bigger issues that seem to always be out there. Precisely because those issues are always out there, they constitute an incessant hum, background noise that one gets used to and learns to tune out.

Israelis have lived so long with the Iranian threat and the Palestinian issue that it is now just that: background noise. These issues may wax and wane, their intensity may vary, but they are always somewhere there in the background. Price rises can trigger a mass movement of sorts on social media, the Palestinian issue much less so.

But that Israelis can get worked up and organize protest action over price hikes, but not on issues relating to the Palestinians or the Iran nuclear agreement, does not mean that they care only about the former, but not about the latter two. Rather, it means that they feel they can impact one, but not the others.

One of the reasons the public made its positions clearly known on the price increases and Pegasus is that there were solutions: lower prices in the first instance, stop excessive police surveillance in the second. But there is no simple solution to the Palestinian issue, nor one everyone can agree on.

Furthermore, everyone agrees that price hikes and using Big Brother techniques by the police are bad. You can mobilize a nation when there is a consensus. There is, however, no similar consensus regarding a solution to the Palestinian issue, or even on what to do about Iran.

THE PUBLIC’S furious reaction to the Pegasus story illustrates Tip O’Neil’s aphorism in a different manner as well. Last July various news organizations around the world began reporting on abuses of the NGO Group’s spyware. The “Pegasus Project” showed how countries from Mexico to India were using the spyware to take control of the phones of dissident and opposition leaders, lawyers and journalists.

These stories, when they first began appearing, did not generate an overwhelming amount of interest in Israel. This was something happening somewhere else, to other people, so there was much less of an immediate concern, not a lot of outrage.

If it was of any concern at all to the average Israeli, it was because NSO is an Israeli-owned company, and that Israel’s name was being dragged into the news in a negative connotation for not better regulating the use of this technology. But it was a distant story.

That ended when reports broke last month that it wasn’t only the Moroccans using Pegasus to spy on French President Emmanuel Macron, but also the Israeli police listening to three Israeli mayors. Then people started to take note, because then this was a local story, something that affected them immediately.

Interestingly, the Israeli public’s anger has been directed much more at the police for allegedly misusing the spyware – and to a lesser degree toward the attorney-general and state attorney for not keeping an eye on the police – but not at the NSO Group for creating it.

In this way, Israel’s reaction was different than it was in other countries when the extent of the abuse of the spyware became public last summer. In much of the world, the anger was directed as much toward NSO for creating this tool, as it was toward those local authorities who put it to nefarious ends.

Here, in a land all too well acquainted with terrorism, most people realize why such a tool was developed. What they don’t understand, or excuse, is the way it was allegedly misused.

This misuse has stirred passions in a way that other issues have been unable to do, because it is something people can relate to.

Everyone has a smartphone. Everyone can imagine what it would be like were their phone’s content open to third-party eyes. And everyone is horrified at the thought of their privacy being violated. This is an issue – like price hikes – that is immediate, affects everyone personally, and has the power to get people worked up in a way that the Palestinian issue and Iranian nuclear agreement have not succeeded in doing for years.