NSO revealed as informal arm of gov’t? - analysis

What are the broader implications of NSO for Israel-US relations?

ISRAELI CYBER firm NSO Group’s exhibition stand is seen at ISDEF 2019, an international defense and homeland security expo held in Tel Aviv in 2019. (photo credit: KEREN MANOR)
ISRAELI CYBER firm NSO Group’s exhibition stand is seen at ISDEF 2019, an international defense and homeland security expo held in Tel Aviv in 2019.
(photo credit: KEREN MANOR)

Is it time for the Israeli government to finally come out and more formally admit that NSO Group has (allegedly) been working with it behind-the-scenes both in terms of normalization initiatives and in terms of combating terrorism?

The New York Times reported late Monday that Israel is getting ready to open a campaign to convince the US to drop NSO from its Commerce Department blacklist.

But this report should not come as a surprise to anyone who has followed news about NSO in recent years.

Back in July, Defense Minister Benny Gantz took it upon himself to personally travel to Paris to argue on NSO’s behalf to French President Emmanuel Macron and to make it clear that the cyberespionage firm was not spying on him.

This came after 17 media organizations worldwide tore NSO apart in the eyes of the public over allegations that its spyware had been used by autocratic regimes to spy on human rights activists, journalists and foreign officials.

 PM Naftali Bennett meets with French President Emmanuel Macron in Glasgow (credit: CHAIM TZACH/GPO) PM Naftali Bennett meets with French President Emmanuel Macron in Glasgow (credit: CHAIM TZACH/GPO)

Last week, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Macron met at the UN Climate Change Conference in Glasgow, with Bennett promising to be more transparent regarding the controversy and trying to smooth over the issue with the French premier.

The bottom line was that the prime minister himself was weighing in personally on behalf of NSO.

Back in November 2019, The Jerusalem Post reported that NSO may be being used by the Israeli government to conduct business and improve relations with moderate Sunni countries – later identified as Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Oman.

If Israel could help those governments with cyber tools to fight jihadists, those governments might be more dependent on Jerusalem and more ready to normalize.

When Amnesty International tried to get the Tel Aviv District Court to cancel NSO’s export license in January 2020, there were around two dozen Defense Ministry and other government officials in court to jump to its defense.

This was more officials than came with former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu to the High Court of Justice in 2016 to fight for preserving his major natural gas policy.

So it has been clear for some time how deeply invested the Israeli government was in NSO and its continued operations.

What has changed to bring the relationship further out into the open is that NSO is now both on the US Commerce Department’s blacklist, while also coming under attack on Monday for its spyware being allegedly used to hack cell phones of Palestinian activists.

This second item is significant because it dovetails into the saga over Israel declaring six Palestinian human rights NGOs as terrorist groups, regarding which Jerusalem and Washington are already in the midst of a ‘Cold War’ of sorts.

This Cold War is both over Israel’s move against the specific groups and about the way it collected and sometimes collects evidence through harsh or enhanced interrogations.

The Biden administration is trying to frame the US as a global beacon of human rights.

So it is not interested in confessions from Palestinian human rights activists that they double as money-launderers for the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) terrorist group if the admissions came from detainees who were questioned in painful positions, with sleep deprivation and certain psychological-warfare tactics.

Israeli officials will also have taken note that within days of the blacklist decision, a US federal court of appeals rejected NSO’s claim of sovereign immunity from being sued by Facebook.

That appeals court had been moving slowly on the issue for some time and there is nothing coincidental about its swift move to slap down NSO within days of the Commerce Department move.

With two separate branches of the American government declaring legal and economic war on NSO, the Jewish state will have its work cut out for it to try to flip that opposition.

Indications are that Jerusalem will argue to the Biden administration that NSO’s spyware has been used to fight Palestinian terrorists and also terrorists targeting the US.

This might be the only argument with a chance of success.

Washington supports Israeli normalization with Muslim countries, but has shown no readiness to concede side issues or to anger third parties in order to further advance the process.

Moreover, the four states who Israel has normalized relations with have come a long way, and NSO technology may have been one of the few incentives for pushing those normalization deals forward.

So will Jerusalem be able to marshal enough evidence of both past and future counter-terrorism help to the US (and not only Europe) to make it worth removing NSO, and Biden enduring certain criticism from the global human rights community?

Will Israel need to trade removing the six Palestinian NGOs from its terrorist list to get NSO a reprieve, or will some other horse-trading take place, such as regarding the US consulate in east Jerusalem, which Biden wants to reopen for the Palestinians?

Wherever the talks lead, it is becoming less and less viable for the government to try to hide the nature of its special connection to NSO.