NSO’s Pegasus spyware, a cyberweapon enabling state-sponsored terrorism against civil society, has outraged the world. In Israel, there’s complicity – or complete indifference.
By Eitay Mack
Published on Haaretz, July 21, 2021
“The violation of Israeli settlers’ right to ice cream”: The Ben & Jerry’s “outrage” is what most of Israel’s media, government and the Israeli public have been obsessing over for the last 24 hours, while in the rest of the world, newspapers headlines have been publicizing Israeli surveillance company NSO’s complicity in the political persecution of journalists, lawyers, politicians and human rights activists.
Perhaps there was never any reason to expect otherwise from a state that defines itself as democratic but, for 54 years, has been holding millions of Palestinians hostage to its whims.
After 12 years of Benjamin Netanyahu’s tenure as prime minister, in which human rights activists and Knesset members were smeared as supporters of terrorism, critical journalists deemed enemies of the people and left-wing voters as traitors, why would the Israeli public, which had grown accustomed to view dissident voices as enemies, care about what happens to journalists in Azerbaijan, India or Hungary?
Israel’s Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, its Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and other cabinet ministers decided it was urgent and essential to condemn in a unified demagogic wave the ice cream brand’s decision and even claimed, implicitly or explicitly, that it fueled antisemitism and terrorism.
But they all retain the right to remain silent regarding the Defense Ministry granting licenses to NSO, which serve in practice as licenses for state-sponsored terrorism against civil society around the world.
Meretz has adopted the Machiavellian pragmatism of the Ministry of Defense, which, by licensing NSO, serially prioritizes the support of dubious allies to quash resolutions unfavorable to Israel in global forums – human rights and international law be damned.
It’s a dismal decline for a party that once led the Knesset to consider its moral conscience, proposing to amend the 2007 Defense Export Control Law to include a ban on exporting goods or services that could be used to violate human rights. Now-Minister Tamar Zandberg once filed a petition to actually revoke NSO’s export license to Mexico.
But now, Meretz is content to settle for a request for “clarification” from Defense Minister Benny Gantz. Why not demand that Gantz immediately freeze all NSO export licenses? What other clarifications does Meretz need? Would Meretz ask the science minister for “clarifications” as to whether the earth is round?
Two petitions have been filed in the courts regarding NSO’s export licenses. A gag order was issued in the court’s ruling in March 20, 2018 on the export of the company’s system to Mexico. Israeli Supreme Court President Justice Esther Hayut, and Justices Yosef Elron and Menachem Mazuz, who heard the petition, approved for publication only the bare fact that they’d rejected the petition to block sales to Mexico.
Judge Rachel Barkai, who heard another petition, following the exposure by Amnesty International of an attempt to attack one of its staff member with the Pegasus spyware, wasn’t satisfied with merely rejecting it but chose, in her ruling of 12 July 2020, to pay gratuitous tribute to the Ministry of Defense for its adherence to human rights norms in issuing licenses for defense exports.
Israel’s judicial system has thus serially missed opportunities to prevent NSO and Israel’s Ministry of Defense from becoming a real and present danger to democracy all over the world.
Two weeks ago, High Court justices Alex Stein, David Mintz and Anat Baron rejected a petition to revoke an export license to Russia granted by the Ministry of Defense to the Cellebrite system, which has been used to hack into the cellphones of activists in Alexei Navalny’s anti-Putin, anti-corruption organization.
The judges went even further, blocking further petitions on the issue, ruling that defense export policy, as the prerogative of the state, is not subject to judicial review – except for extreme cases “involving abuse of authority, conflict of interests or extremely unreasonable conduct.” It is no longer clear that there is a path through Israel’s courts to fight the sale of cybertech to repressive regimes.
Only time will tell whether escalating international pressure will succeed in changing the State of Israel’s defense export policy for the weaponry of spyware any more than international pressure is helping end the occupation. Clearly, past experience is no cause for optimism, no matter the riptide generated by the Pegasus revelations.
Translated from Hebrew by Ofer Neiman
Eitay Mack is a human rights lawyer and activist based in Jerusalem specializing in the issue of Israel’s arms trade. He filed the petitions to revoke the NSO and Cellbrite defense export licenses and participated in writing the bill banning the export of defense-related goods or services that could be used to violate human rights mentioned in the article above
Headline photo: NSO’s Pegasus spyware, a cyberweapon that hacks cellphones and enables state-sponsored terrorism against civil society, has outraged the world. In Israel, there’s complicity – or complete indifference Credit: AP