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Pegasus spyware: Israel's police minister announces state inquiry as scandal spirals

Lawyers for Benjamin Netanyahu urge proceedings against him be suspended following Israeli newspaper's latest revelations
NSO software operates by capturing encrypted messages, photos and other sensitive information from infected phones, turning them into recording devices to monitor surroundings (AFP)

Israel's police minister said on Monday he was setting up a state commission of inquiry after a newspaper said the force had illicitly used spyware to hack the phones of government officials, businesspeople and associates of former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

The move follows calls for an investigation on Monday from Israel's president, cabinet ministers, politicians and the country's top police officer.

Omer Barlev, the internal security minister, said he was setting up the inquiry "to look into all of the claims to their full depth and breadth".

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"There won't be such failings on my watch," he said in remarks aired by Israeli media.

Barlev was appointed as part of Prime Minister Naftali Bennett's coalition government in June.

Pegasus, a mobile hacking tool made by Israel's NSO Group, was used to "phish for intelligence even before any investigation had been opened against the targets, and without judicial warrants," Calcalist, an Israeli business daily, said in the unsourced report.

Those targets included a son of and two aides to Netanyahu, who is on trial on corruption charges, as well as a co-defendant and several witnesses, and, separately, two former officials suspected of leaking information to journalists, Calcalist said.

Calcalist said dozens of people were targeted who were not suspected of any criminal conduct, and without police receiving the necessary court approval.

The daily said they included senior leaders of the finance, justice and communication ministries, mayors, and Ethiopian-Israelis who led protests against alleged police misconduct. 

Netanyahu lawyers call for suspension

In another revelation that could affect Netanyahu's ongoing corruption trial, Calcalist also reported that key witness Ilan Yeshua, former chief executive of the Walla news site, was also a target.

Netanyahu is accused of seeking to trade regulatory favours with media moguls in exchange for favourable coverage, including on Walla. He denies the charges.

Lawyers for Netanyahu - who denies wrongdoing - urged that the proceedings against him be suspended pending clarification of the newspaper report, Reuters reported.

Howver, a court spokesman said he did not know if any such request had been filed with the judges, who were conducting the trial on Monday as scheduled.

Earlier, police commissioner Kobi Shabtai had asked the government to order an external commission of inquiry "in order to restore the public's trust in the Israeli police".

Shabtai added that the incidents cited by Calcalist predated his appointment in 2021.

In a speech, Israeli President Isaac Herzog said: "We must not lose our democracy. This necessitates a very deep and thorough investigation."

'An earthquake, if true'

Police have been conducting internal investigations, and answering questions before parliamentary oversight panels, since Calcalist last month reported that its investigators had used Pegasus against Israeli citizens - sometimes without warrants.

That report created domestic furore over the Pegasus spyware, whose misuse by foreign clients highlighted in an expose last year, had prompted the government of Naftali Bennett to order export reviews.

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NSO said all its sales are government-authorised and that it does not itself run Pegasus.

Bennett, who unseated Netanyahu in June, deemed Calcalist's findings "very serious, if true".

"This tool (Pegasus) and similar tools are important tools in the fight against terrorism and severe crime, but they were not intended to be used in phishing campaigns targeting the Israeli public or officials, which is why we need to understand exactly what happened," he said in a written statement.

Earlier, Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked, a member of Bennett's rightist party, called the latest Calcalist findings "an earthquake, if true - the gravest of acts by Israeli police, befitting dark regimes and definitely not a democratic country".

"An external commission of inquiry should be set up," she told Israel's Kan radio. 

That call was echoed by Immigration Minister Pnina Tamano-Shata and Environment Minister Tamar Zandberg, the latter of whom urged on Twitter: "Commission of inquiry, no excuses or semantics."

Recording devices

NSO software operates by capturing encrypted messages, photos and other sensitive information from infected phones, turning them into recording devices to monitor surroundings.

Last year, Amnesty International, Forbidden Stories and a group of international media organisations alleged the Pegasus spyware was used in hacks of smartphones belonging to journalists, officials, human rights activists and political leaders around the world.

The investigative group said it had acquired a list of 50,000 phone numbers that appeared to be targets identified by the Israeli company's clients to be spied upon using Pegasus.

The numbers of French President Emmanuel Macron, Morocco's King Mohammed VI, Iraqi President Barham Salih and Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan were among the apparent targets.