Knesset battles over NSO and charges of police as ‘mafia’

The Knesset's Interior Security Committee debated the NSO affair on Monday, with chairwoman Merav Ben Ari trying to strike a balance between defending the police and probing its actions.

Merav Ben-Ari with Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid, February 1, 2021 (photo credit: RAANAN COHEN)
Merav Ben-Ari with Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid, February 1, 2021
(photo credit: RAANAN COHEN)

Members of the Knesset Public Security Committee on Monday fought over the implications of the latest NSO Group controversy and whether the Israel Police have acted like “a mafia” against Israeli citizens or are generally heroes with a limited number of rogue bad apples.

Committee chairwoman Merav Ben-Ari (Yesh Atid) tried to strike a balance between defending the honor of the police in general, versus delving into whether a narrow number of police officials might have illegally hacked citizens’ cellphones using NSO or similar spyware.

In contrast, most of the MKs on the committee were furious at the police in a broader manner. Some of them demanded legislation to limit the police from cyber spying on citizens. But Shas MK Moshe Arbel said the Israel Police was acting “like a criminal organization” and causing a “national disaster.”

Ben-Ari cut off Arbel and told him to retract his besmirching of the entire police force. That led to a yelling match between the sides.

At one point, Ben-Ari threatened to have Arbel removed from the room, while the Shas MK continued to yell at her: “You cannot silence me!”

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. (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. (credit: REUTERS/AMIR COHEN)

Ben-Ari also had a rough exchange with Likud MK Keren Barak, who seemed to want to tie the NSO-police scandal to some kind of charge of illegal gathering of evidence against former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, even though no reports to date have made such charges.

In response, Ben-Ari said most of the alleged improper police spying occurred during 2015-2018, when Netanyahu was prime minister and running the government, and had nothing to do with the current government.

Meretz MK Mossi Raz demanded a parliamentary or state commission of inquiry, saying a probe by Attorney-General Avichai Mandelblit limited to narrow criminal issues, as opposed to also looking at what would be desirable policy, would be insufficient.

State Comptroller Matanyahu Englman’s announcement that he would probe the issue seemed to have been somewhat ignored.

Although prior comptrollers received praise and support for such probes by left-wing and progressive parties, many of those same parties have less trust in Englman since more than his first year in office was often spent downplaying critiques of Netanyahu, who appointed him.

Both Raz and Meretz MK Michal Rozin said even if the police were getting court approvals, this could be insufficient if they did not fully share with the judges how far they were going to go with spyware and if the courts do not really understand how the hacking tools work.

Ben-Ari said she was open-minded about potential new legislation to address loopholes and to bring protections for citizens up to date with the spyware and cellphone hacking age, since existing laws were passed to manage earlier technologies for bugging and eavesdropping on telephone calls.

In contrast, current spyware can reportedly also access emails, photos, GPS locations and a variety of other intimate information.

Ben-Ari said there would be additional hearings on the issue and that she also wanted to allow the other MKs to receive classified briefing so they would be more educated about the challenges the police face with technologically advanced crime organizations before criticizing out of ignorance.