Those calling for an end to the Netanyahu corruption trial felt the wind at their backs earlier this month following bombshell revelations that the Israel Police may have used Pegasus software to spy on the former premier’s inner circle without warrant or judicial supervision. Speaking via video at a Feb. 17 protest on his behalf in Tel Aviv by some 1,500 supporters, Netanyahu said, “Only a State Commission of Inquiry can ensure that such criminal acts will never be repeated. … The citizens of Israel demand an explanation—without whitewashing, without coverup.”
Netanyahu, who is charged with bribery, fraud and breach of trust, hopes to discredit the prosecution by capitalizing on a Feb. 7 report by Israeli daily business newspaper Calcalist that alleged police had illegally hacked the cellphones of people involved in his trial.
Should the allegations prove true, could Netanyahu’s trial fall apart?
Retired Israeli judge Haran Fainstein, who teaches at Bar-Ilan University’s department of criminology, does not think so. The judges presiding over Netanyahu’s trial, he told JNS, have given the same response regarding all preliminary issues with the potential to derail the proceedings—“let’s wait until the verdict.” Given that there are over 300 witnesses in the three cases against the former premier, a decision on whether evidence was gathered illegally could take 10 years, he noted.
However, with Pegasus, the judges did not say “hold off until the verdict.” Instead, they decided to wait until prosecutors could respond to the new allegations. That response came on Feb. 16. The prosecution said that it had looked at 1,500 phone numbers connected to the Netanyahu investigations, and that none involved wiretapping without court order.
The prosecution found that Pegasus was indeed used in one instance—to gather information from the cellphone of Shlomo Filber, former director general of the Communications Ministry and one-time Netanyahu chief-of-staff, who turned state witness. However, the prosecution said the material collected didn’t produce anything relevant to the case. It confessed that police exceeded their warrant, extracting private information from Filber’s phone. The prosecution also said that police attempted to extract information from the cellphone of Iris Elovitch, a co-defendant in one of the cases against Netanyahu, but were unsuccessful.
The court has yet to issue a decision after receiving the prosecution’s response.
When the story first broke, the government appeared shaken by the allegations. It said it would set up a State Commission of Inquiry to investigate the matter. But a week later, it pushed back, saying there wasn’t enough evidence to justify one. Fainstein disagreed, saying an official commission of some kind was necessary.
“The prosecution and the police cannot self-inquire if they’re OK. That’s unbelievable. We can’t accept the idea that they will police themselves. This needs an outsider,” he said. “The case is undermining the public’s confidence in the judicial system. People don’t believe in the system,” he added.
The Israel Police has sent mixed messages. First denying the allegations, it later admitted there were irregularities, before taking an increasingly tough line. On Friday, it insisted that it only employed Pegasus-type tools with a court order. On Monday, it was reported that police are considering suing Calcalist for undermining public confidence.
This followed an interim report released on Sunday by the State Attorney’s Office on its investigation into the allegations, that found no wrongdoing. The report did confirm however that wiretapping warrants were issued for three of the people who appeared on the list of names published by Calcalist.
Calcalist, in response, said that it is taking the interim findings seriously and will review its Feb. 7 report. But it noted that the report had also verified that the “police do use super-invasive cyber weapons to hack telephones of citizens.”
Gadi Taub, a senior lecturer at the Federmann School of Public Policy at Hebrew University, said the left-wing mainstream press was trying to bury the story.
“What seems to be the case is that the police used these weapons against people around Netanyahu in order to draw information out of them, which then enabled the police to extort those people and demand they give something up on Netanyahu,” said Taub.
The police and prosecution were responding to the accusations with spin, he continued.
“They said they ‘overstepped’ the warrants in a few cases—but there are no warrants for using cyber weapons against citizens. No judge can issue such a warrant,” he said. “Then they say the information gathered was not used in the trial. If I robbed a bank and I didn’t buy anything with the money, then it means I didn’t rob a bank? This is also a ridiculous argument.”
Taub said the police’s cyber-intelligence unit is operated by people from the Internal Security Agency (Shin Bet) and Unit 8200, the IDF’s signals intelligence unit.
“They brought in people whose specialty is espionage against enemies, who operate under a completely different code of ethics, to run this unit. There are 500 people in this unit. Do they expect us to believe that this huge unit, in the roughly eight years since it was established, has only used its apparatus three times and only one of them successfully? Does that make sense to anyone?” he said.
For his part, Taub believes that there is definitely a chance that the allegations will impact Netanyahu’s trial. He noted, too, that the former premier’s lawyers have hinted that more information will be forthcoming in connection with the case.