The long-haul fight over police spying allegations is on - analysis

Calcalist is fighting back on the Pegasus narrative.

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

The dramatic battle over whether the police have been illegally spying on citizens by hacking their cellphones without court orders just entered a third phase.

On Monday, the Calcalist media outlet that started the storm a couple of months ago doubled down on most of its allegations against the police.

This was despite two interim reports by a committee of Deputy Attorney-General Amit Merari and various Mossad and Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) officials that rejected the vast majority of the allegations while validating certain accusations.

What this means is that the battle over the narrative of whether the police were illegally spying or not, in general and for the case of former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, will continue until at least Merari submits her final report in July.

How did we get here?

 A PROTESTER HOLDS a banner during a protest attended by about a dozen people outside the offices of the Israeli cyber firm NSO Group in Herzliya, last week.  (credit: NIR ELIAS / REUTERS) A PROTESTER HOLDS a banner during a protest attended by about a dozen people outside the offices of the Israeli cyber firm NSO Group in Herzliya, last week. (credit: NIR ELIAS / REUTERS)

These articles culminated early last month with a report alleging that the cellphones of dozens of top officials, including ministry director-generals who were not even under criminal investigation, had been hacked illegally.

At that stage, much of the coalition and all opposition figures were calling for a state inquiry, and lawyers for Netanyahu were calling for the indictment against him to be withdrawn and the trial terminated.

Then came the second stage.

Late last month, two interim reports from law enforcement that included security officials who had no personal stake in the game indicated that: 1) yes, the police were hacking cellphones to solve certain felony crimes 2) yes, the cellphone of a key witness in the Netanyahu trial had been hacked improperly 3) nearly all of the dozens of allegations of hacks by Calcalist were false or the hacks came with proper court orders, and 4) even the hack in the Netanyahu case came with a court order for access to the cellphone, except the hack went beyond the court order’s time limit.

Suddenly, the state inquiry was off the table.

The court in the Netanyahu case indicated that the hacking was a technical issue that would not greatly impact the trial, and proceeded with its schedule of witnesses after a few weeks’ delay.

Calcalist itself came under attack for its possibly unsubstantiated allegations, and there were calls for it to reveal its sources or admit it had misled everyone.

Some sources suggested that the whole exercise was a sophisticated set up by Netanyahu supporters or at least partially coordinated with them.

The story went away for a few weeks, with many expecting Calcalist to dump the story and rebuke Tomer Gonen, the reporter who wrote the articles.

BUT NOW Calcalist has flipped the script again, providing a range of new details including an explicit claim that its information is based on officials from within the police cyber unit.

Sources are skeptical that Calcalist has direct access to actual police cyber officials, because some of its articles portrayed a superficiality that might sound impressive to the uninitiated public but looked amateurish to the initiated.

But Calcalist provided a range of new specifics about its information, including a narrative indicating that Merari’s interim report intentionally left out information that Calcalist and Gonen provided her.

Although the issues are more complex, Calcalist said that some of the issue come down to Merari having rushed out an interim report based on mere technological checks, despite Gonen providing an avenue to also check with police cyber officials.

Furthermore, Calcalist suggested that Merari avoided or delayed meeting Gonen, who offered assistance.

The Justice Ministry issued a laconic reply in response, suggesting that Gonen had refused to show up for the meeting.

Reading the two statements together, it seems that the parties broke down about where the meeting would be held, owing to the distrust on both sides that the meeting would not be used to get to the truth but to set up the other side to take a fall.

So who to believe?

Sources believe the Calcalist got some things right but was merely fooled on other things, and that those providing information to the outlet have nothing to do with Netanyahu and merely exaggerated some issues.

Other sources still believe there is at least some loose connection between the Calcalist stories and the Netanyahu case. They toss out the names of four lawyers and former senior police officials who would have a motivation to get revenge against a range of current and other former police officials by creating a scandal.

Some of these officials have already tried to provide information that was directly or indirectly designed to help the Netanyahu defense team attack the police for its treatment of another key witness.

A Calcalist official denied that the four names mentioned were the basis of its stories, and expressed consternation at being asked such questions.

It is also important to note that the Calcalist has no connection to Netanyahu, and if anything would be regarded by Netanyahu as an “enemy” publication.

At the same time, the Calcalist official declined to discuss even off-the-record what type of hard evidence the outlet had seen to be sure that it was not being misled by its sources, whoever they may be.

So the issue will remain alive until at least July, when Merari is supposed to have interviewed all relevant witnesses from the police cyber unit.

Maybe then there will be definitive clarity on the allegations.

Alternatively, both sides seem so dug in at this point that each may continue to try to claim their portion of the truth even beyond that report.

However, judging from the drop in interest in the Calcalist’s latest statement on Monday, it will need to get Merari to have a major and unexpected turnaround before it will be able to regain control of the narrative of this sensational story.