© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: The logo of Israeli cyber firm NSO Group is seen at one of its branches in the Arava Desert, southern Israel July 22, 2021. REUTERS/Amir Cohen
By Dan Williams
JERUSALEM (Reuters) -Israel’s minister in charge of police said on Monday he was setting up a state commission of inquiry after a newspaper said the force had illicitly used spyware against confidants of ex-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other public figures.
Pegasus, a cellphone 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 daily said in an 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 in leaks to the media, Calcalist said.
With lawyers for Netanyahu – who denies wrongdoing – urging that proceedings against him be suspended pending clarification of the Calcalist report, Internal Security Minister Omer Barlev said he was setting up a state commission of inquiry “to look into all of the claims to their full depth and breadth”.
“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.
The creation of a commission of inquiry was supported by Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai, who said the Calcalist findings predate his own appointment in January 2021.
Police have been conducting internal probes, 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 alleged misuse by foreign clients had prompted the Bennett government to order export reviews.
NSO says all its sales are government-authorised and that it does not itself run Pegasus.
Bennett had no immediate comment on the affair on Monday. But at least three ministers from his cross-partisan coalition had urged an independent inquiry, as had the Union of Journalists in Israel.
President Isaac Herzog also voiced concern. “We must not lose our democracy. We must not lose our police. And we must certainly not lose public trust in them. This necessitates a very deep and thorough investigation,” he said in a speech.
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