Israeli police allegedly used spyware on the phones of former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s son and members of his inner circle, a local newspaper reported Monday.
Calcalist has published a series of recent reports alleging that police used sophisticated spyware against protesters and other Israeli citizens, prompting condemnation from across the political spectrum. The allegations could also undermine Netanyahu’s ongoing corruption trial, after reports that police used spyware to surveil a key witness.
Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said the allegations, if true, are “very serious.”
Public Security Minister Omer Barlev announced the formation of a government commission of inquiry, to be led by a retired judge, that will “investigate in depth the violation of civil rights and privacy in the years in question.” He said the alleged violations appear to have been carried out under former officials in previous governments.
Israel’s previous police chief, Roni Alsheikh, who was in command during much of the alleged snooping, has declined comment on the matter.
Calcalist says the police used spyware against a phone registered to Netanyahu’s son, Avner, as well as two communications advisors and the wife of another defendant in one of three corruption cases against the former leader.
They are among several prominent figures to have been targeted with spyware, including business leaders, former directors of Cabinet ministries and mayors, Calcalist reported. It said the organizers of demonstrations on behalf of disabled people and Israel’s Ethiopian minority were also targeted.
Calcalist said police used the powerful Pegasus software developed by the Israeli firm NSO Group, which is mired in controversy after its spyware was linked to eavesdropping on journalists, activists and politicians in several countries.
The newspaper said police used the spyware to gather intelligence before any investigation had been opened — and without judicial warrants. It’s not clear whether Netanyahu’s inner circle was targeted in connection with his ongoing corruption trial or for other reasons. A spokesman for the Netanyahu family did not respond to a request for comment.
Bennett, who replaced Netanyahu as prime minister last June, said Pegasus and other products “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 statement.
The Cabinet met Monday to approve Gali Baharav-Miara as the country’s new attorney general. She replaces Avichai Mandelblit, who was handpicked by Netanyahu but presided over his indictment, and whose six-year term ended last week.
“Given the erosion of public confidence in law enforcement, there is an important opportunity here to maintain what needs to be maintained and to correct what needs to be corrected,” Bennett said.
Netanyahu is in the midst of a lengthy corruption trial over charges of fraud, breach of trust and accepting bribes in three separate cases. His historic 12-year rule came to an end last year when a narrow coalition government was sworn in after four elections in less than two years.
Netanyahu has long accused law enforcement of unfairly targeting him, and his lawyers have demanded answers. Even Netanyahu’s political opponents have expressed outrage.
The witness whose phone was reportedly hacked, Shlomo Filber, is expected to testify in the coming days and Netanyahu’s lawyers are expected to request a delay to his testimony. Calcalist reported that police also used spyware on Dudu Mizrahi, the CEO of Israel’s Bezeq telecom firm, to assess the credibility of his testimony in one of the cases.
It remains unclear whether any of the evidence allegedly gathered was used against Netanyahu.
Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai said he supported an independent investigation to “restore public trust in the Israel police on the one hand, and regulate the use of technology by the Israel police on the other.” The police say they are already cooperating with the investigation by the attorney general’s office.
State prosecutors have meanwhile told Netanyahu’s lawyers that they are “thoroughly examining” the reports, according to internal communications seen by The Associated Press.
Authorities have not said which spyware might have been improperly used.
The NSO Group’s Pegasus allows operators to seamlessly infiltrate a target’s mobile phone and gain access to the device’s contents, including real-time communications. Other Israeli companies have also produced powerful spying tools.
NSO does not disclose its clients and says it does not have access to the intelligence they collect or control how its products are used. It says all of its sales are approved by Israel’s Defense Ministry and that its technology is used by governments to combat crime and terrorism.
Associated Press writer Ilan Ben Zion in Jerusalem contributed to this report.