Israel’s government established a commission to investigate whether police misused spyware in an inquiry that the attorney general warned could potentially obstruct the criminal case against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
(Bloomberg) — Israel’s government established a commission to investigate whether police misused spyware in an inquiry that the attorney general warned could potentially obstruct the criminal case against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
In a vote, Netanyahu’s cabinet set up the commission on Sunday to look into how phone-hacking software, including applications made by the Israeli company NSO group, was used in criminal investigations, Justice Minister Yariv Levin said on social media on Sunday.
The creation of the commission has widened a clash between politicians in the far-right Netanyahu government, led by his ally Levin, who are working to curb the judiciary’s powers, and on the other side justice officials who are seeking to safeguard the courts.
Before the cabinet’s vote, Attorney General Gali Baharav-Miara’s office said Israeli security agencies had warned that the inquiry could divulge its intelligence-gathering tactics. Last week, she told lawmakers they lacked jurisdiction to investigate whether spyware was used in open criminal cases, particularly those involving the prime minister.
The government’s plans to give politicians more sway over the courts and change how judges are appointed have sparked months of rallies in Israel by opponents who argue it could undermine Israel’s democracy. Lawmakers loyal to Netanyahu have frequently lashed out at the attorney general, whose office filed the criminal charges against Netanyahu in 2019 and who has voiced fierce criticism of the judicial overhaul.
The trial against the prime minister on charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust began in 2020 and is expected to drag on for several more years, barring a plea agreement. Netanyahu denies the allegations against him.
At the heart of the new dispute are questions over the alleged use of spy software from NSO Group, which has been blacklisted by the United States for nearly two years amid growing evidence its Pegasus hacking tool was used by foreign governments to spy on dissidents, human rights activists, and journalists.
The company largely avoided scrutiny in Israel until last year, when the Calcalist business daily reported that law enforcement used Pegasus without court orders to tap into the phones of citizens, including a key prosecution witness in Netanyahu’s corruption trial, the Israeli leader’s son, and senior government officials.
The Justice Ministry under a previous government issued a report disputing details of the Calcalist story, but said police were using a less powerful tool than Pegasus that was also developed by NSO Group known as Saifan, with insufficient oversight.
The effort to establish the commission by Netanyahu’s cabinet is widely seen as an effort to uncover whether phone-hacking was used in the investigations into the prime minister. Baharav-Miara said empowering the government to probe the Netanyahu cases or any other investigations would be akin to “obstruction of justice.”
Levin, in a social media post, said the commission would draw up legal guidelines on the use of advanced technologies in police investigations. He said he aimed to “restore public trust” in police following the allegations raised by Calcalist, “while giving law enforcement effective tools to fight crime and corruption.”
NSO Group declined to comment on the new government inquiry into the police. The Israel Police did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Justice Minister Levin, the architect of the judicial reforms roiling the country since January, has appointed a retired judge to oversee the probe.
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