The Israeli police commissioner cut short an official international trip on Tuesday to return home to deal with a mounting controversy involving unlawful espionage, including on members of former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s closest circle.
Kobi Shabtai returned early Tuesday from the United Arab Emirates, where the police forces planned to build professional connections over a lengthier visit, under increasing pressure. The judgment came a day after a local daily alleged that police deployed spyware unlawfully, including on the phones of Netanyahu’s son and others, spurring a high-level inquiry and destabilizing the opposition leader’s corruption trial.
“In light of recent publications and to keep a close watch on events, the commissioner will shorten his stay,” the police said in a statement, adding that Shabtai favors a judge-led probe. According to the statement, the national police force “has nothing to conceal from the public.”
The severity of the claims made by the Calcalist business journal, which have ricocheted throughout Israel’s political and judicial landscapes, was reflected in Shabtai’s early return. In addition to Netanyahu’s entourage, previous ministry directors, mayors, and political activists have been targeted.
According to sources, authorities employed the advanced Pegasus monitoring software developed by the Israeli business NSO Group. Pegasus has been connected to a variety of atrocities committed by totalitarian governments worldwide.
The publication stated on Monday that Pegasus had become “one of the most used weapons for intelligence collecting in the hands of the police,” and that it has been used against politicians, demonstrators, business moguls, ministry heads, and Netanyahu’s personal aides and son. The tabloid identified no sources, as in earlier claims, but for the first time named those allegedly surveilled by the police.
The police department disputed the claims and stated on Tuesday that no proof of unlawful activities had been discovered. However, the reports sparked outrage from Israelis across the political spectrum. After one of Netanyahu’s main witnesses was listed as a victim of the purported attack, they threw the current corruption trial into turmoil. A second straight hearing, set for Wednesday, has been canceled.
Following a meeting with Cabinet ministers and the attorney general, Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett asked for an investigation into the more than two dozen names claimed to have been targets of the surveillance on Tuesday, according to his office.
As his trial was halted, Netanyahu urged a “strong and impartial probe” into the suspected abuse of the malware, calling it a “sad day for Israel.”
Public Security Minister Omer Barlev, who supervises the nation’s police force, announced the formation of a government panel of investigation to “examine in depth the breach of civil rights and privacy in the years in question.” According to him, the alleged infractions appear to have been committed by past officials in prior regimes.
Roni Alsheikh, Israel’s former police head who was in authority for much of the alleged spying, made his first comments since the findings were released. According to the Hebrew news website Ynet, he denied any misconduct, saying that any surveillance of a public official’s phone would require clearance from the attorney general and that any use of spyware would be reported. The report, he said, was “the most superficial there is.”
According to Calcalist, the police put spyware on a phone registered to Netanyahu’s son, Avner, as well as two communications consultants and the wife of another defendant in one of the Israeli leader’s three corruption investigations.
It is unclear if any of the supposedly acquired evidence was utilized against Netanyahu.
It’s also unclear whether any of the supposedly obtained material was utilized against the former prime leader.
Barlev’s investigation followed comments by Israeli police and the attorney general’s office that they will look into the matter. Last Monday, police admitted for the first time that they had discovered evidence pointing to inappropriate usage of spyware.
The type of spyware deployed has not been disclosed by officials. Calcalist, on the other hand, said it was Pegasus. After the malware was connected to eavesdropping on journalists, activists, and politicians in various nations, NSO became embroiled in controversy.
According to the publication, police utilized the malware to acquire intelligence prior to the launch of any inquiry – and without legal authorization.
Pegasus enables operators to penetrate a target’s mobile phone and obtain access to its data, including real-time communications. Other Israeli firms have also developed strong surveillance capabilities.
NSO does not reveal its clients and claims that it has no access to the intelligence they gather or control over how its products are utilized. According to the company, all of its sales are approved by Israel’s Defense Ministry, and its technology is utilized by governments to combat crime and terrorism.