NSO affair mountainous scandal gets much smaller - opinion

So far, preliminary examination of the evidence offered by Ganon in his Calcalist articles is far from being conclusive.

 A man walks past the logo of Israeli cyber firm NSO Group at one of its branches in the Arava Desert, southern Israel July 22, 2021 (photo credit: REUTERS/AMIR COHEN)
A man walks past the logo of Israeli cyber firm NSO Group at one of its branches in the Arava Desert, southern Israel July 22, 2021
(photo credit: REUTERS/AMIR COHEN)

In the course of the last week, the news I related to in my previous article about the uncovering of 26 cases in which the police allegedly used the Pegasus spyware to penetrate the cellphones of persons, some of whom were not even the subject of formal investigations, and apparently without prior permission by a District or Supreme Court judge, which was published by Tomer Ganon in the business daily Calcalist, progressively turned from an earth-shattering revelation to the mouse begotten by a mountain, from the Hebrew idiom “hahar holid achbar.”

According to Ganon’s articles the 26 persons whose cellphones were allegedly broken into included four former directors-general of government ministries, several mayors, Benjamin Netanyahu’s son Avner, and his two former media advisers.

Immediately there were calls – both from the coalition and the opposition – to appoint a national commission of inquiry to uncover the truth about the misuse by the police of the Pegasus spyware.

Circles close to Netanyahu went so far as to demand that Netanyahu’s trial be terminated, and the indictments against him canceled because it was assumed that at least part of the evidence in the trial had been attained by means of the illegal use of spyware and that the American legal doctrine of the “fruit of the poisonous tree” ought to be applied.

The term “fruit of the poisonous tree,” coined by US Supreme Court justice Felix Frankfurter in 1939, implies that evidence attained by illegal means is inadmissible in court. In Israel, the doctrine was partially adopted by Supreme Court Justice Dorit Beinisch in 2006 as a tool that requires the court to use its discretion in cases of evidence attained illegally, but does not result in its automatic rejection.

 A RAMI LEVY supermarket in Jerusalem last week.  (credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90) A RAMI LEVY supermarket in Jerusalem last week. (credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)

However, as already implied, so far, preliminary examination of the evidence offered by Ganon in his articles is far from being conclusive.

The police admitted to trying to break into three cellphones, with permission from judges (they say), and added that two of the three attempts failed, while one, in the case of Shlomo Filber, who is a state’s witness in case 4000 and was supposed to start giving his evidence in court last week, was successful, but that nothing of what was extracted from Filber’s cellphone was actually handed over to the investigators in the case. Filber’s phone was apparently broken into in 2017 in connection with the Bezeq investigation that was being held at the time, before Netanyahu became part of the investigation, and before Filber turned state’s witness (in February 2018).

Of course, this is merely preliminary and very partial information. The investigators need the help of at least two bodies connected to the allegations in order to delve more deeply into the facts. The first is the cooperation of the NSO Group, which manufactures the Pegasus spyware, in order to reach information that might have been destroyed by the police to erase all trace of its alleged penetration of the cellphones of the 26 named objects of their activity. The second is information by Tomer Ganon as to the source of the information he published.

The cooperation of NSO will apparently be forthcoming. However, Ganon’s sources are less likely to be revealed, since they are legally protected by court decisions (though not by a written law), and only a court of law can force him to reveal this information. At the moment only Ganon, possibly his editors, and his sources themselves know the identity of the sources. However, only the sources themselves know whether the information they provided is bona fide, or whether it is bogus, and was provided for manipulative purposes.

Whether the whole affair is as serious as mentioned last week is yet to be revealed, and for the time being it seems unlikely that a national commission of inquiry will be set up over this issue.

THE GOVERNMENT’S reaction to the recent surge of price rises in the economy is, for the time being, another mouse of sorts.

But unlike the alleged use of spyware by the police against individuals directly or indirectly involved or connected to investigations carried out by it, in the case of the price rises, we are not talking of a potential threat to democracy through the collapse of the rule of law, but a further threat to the rather rickety cohesion of Israeli society.

This is taking place by means of a policy that seems to differentiate between social groups: those who are employed and pay income tax and those who do not, but especially the haredim, against whom Finance Minister Avigdor Liberman seems to be carrying out a personal vendetta.

The immediate reaction of Liberman and Economy Minister Orna Barbivay was to send rather angry letters to Osem, Strauss, Sano and several other major companies producing or importing foodstuffs, cleaning products, toiletry etc., which had announced that they were planning to raise their prices sharply, demanding that they refrain from doing so, and threatening to take measures against them if they failed to obey.

Surprisingly most of the companies concerned responded positively – at least temporarily – but that was probably more because of the public uproar and the appearance of consumer boycotts on some of the companies and products involved than as a reaction to the rather divergent letters they received.

Next, less than a week ago, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, Liberman and Barbivay announced an “economic plan,” which seemed more like a random list of measures designed to increase the disposable income of employed, taxpaying families with children, by means of tax benefits of various sorts, to help them confront the price rises, rather than a plan to keep down prices.

Some economists have pointed out that the effect of this approach is that since the disposable income of some NIS 800,000 is expected to rise by several billion shekels, this is liable to further boost prices.

In all fairness, one must point out that in its budget passed last November, the government included measures designed to reduce the cost of living, inter alia by encouraging imports. However, so far this government, like previous governments headed by Netanyahu, simply has not addressed the problem of the extremely high cost of living in Israel, to which rising prices of world transport, fuel, and imported consumer and industrial goods contribute, but are not the main cause.

Liberman’s bizarre statement that it is the haredim who are responsible for price rises because 50% of the haredi men are not employed by choice is so scandalous that it does not even deserve a comment.

The main cause of the high cost of living in Israel is the 100 or so Israeli monopolies, in the spheres of production, imports and retail, over which successive governments have not exercised sufficient regulation and control – largely as a result of a neoliberal economic approach. The constantly rising cost of housing is a separate problem that also cannot be resolved by means of a free-market approach alone.

It will be interesting to observe whether the government will finally manage to get the rate of the rising prices under control. I doubt whether its current measures and approach will do the trick.

The writer was a researcher in the Knesset Research and Information Center until her retirement and recently published a book in Hebrew, The Job of the Knesset Member – An Undefined Job, to be published in English by Routledge.