One Year After Pegasus Project Revelations, the State of Israel Continues to Evade Scrutiny

The international condemnation and attempts to pinpoint accountability have stopped at the NSO Group, and let the Israeli government off the hook – even though the deadly spyware was exported as part of official policy.

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Tel Aviv: In the 1980s, when the State of Israel was the main arms supplier to the apartheid regime in South Africa, no one believed Israel’s denials and attempts to remove responsibility from itself to private Israeli companies.

Since September 1979, Israel’s representative to the United Nations repeatedly announced in written statements that the State of Israel was complying with the UN Security Council’s arms embargo on South Africa.

For decades, Israel followed its policy of silence. For example, the deputy director of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Hanan Bar-On, wrote in his telegram to the ministry director, David Kimchi, on August 29, 1984, “The Israeli policy … is that we do not in any way admit [such sales] to an Israeli or to a foreign actor and certainly not to an American Congressman, even if he is considered a friend and the relationship with him is supposedly intimate.”

When Israel received international criticism about its military and economic involvement in the Bantustans in South Africa, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs ordered all its spokespersons in Israeli embassies around the globe to tell the press that the State of Israel does not recognise the Bantustans, and that all transactions were carried out by commercial private entities, with the Israeli government having no involvement or part in the transactions on all its systems, and that the government has no authority to prevent individuals and private companies from doing business worldwide.

This was even though the then deputy director of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Natan Meron, wrote in a telegram to the Israeli ambassador in Pretoria on November 23, 1983, “It is no secret that Israeli political figures and public figures are involved in one way or another, directly or indirectly, in economic activity in the Bantustans”.

The backlash to the revelations about Israel’s dealings with racist South Africa was huge. In addition to countless UN resolutions and reports that have exposed and condemned the military ties between the two countries, and the enormous damage done to Israel’s image, Israeli governments were particularly concerned about the US position.

Also read: Israel Is Dangerously Close to Legitimising the Use of Pegasus on Its Citizens

Members of the US Congress and Senate, and State Department officials, as well as representatives of American Jewish organisations who met with Israeli officials, did not let go of the issue. They demanded explanations and some even demanded that Israel end the military relationship immediately or gradually. Dozens of American Congresspersons sent letters to the Israeli government, demanding it change its behaviour.

Hysteria in Israel intensified ahead of a report by the US Congress, which was due to be published on April 1, 1987, and could cause political damage to the State of Israel and reveal details of its military deals with South Africa. US law obliged President Ronald Reagan to halt US aid to countries found to be violating the arms embargo on the apartheid regime.

According to a summary prepared by the Israeli embassy in Washington regarding a meeting with representatives of American Jewish organisations, on March 1, 1987, “Some of the speakers spoke in terms of catastrophe and argued that it would not be possible to deny / hide Israel’s military ties with the most criminal regime on earth and the damage would be in the form of a huge explosion.”

In the US Congress’s report, it was concluded that “Israel appears to have sold technical assistance on a regular basis… We believe that the Israeli government was fully aware of most or all of the trade.” But just before the report was published, to moderate the backlash, on March 13, 1987, the Israeli government announced that it would not sign new arms deals with the South African government. Although this did not prevent the continuing of existing arms contracts worth of billions of dollars right up until the end of the apartheid regime in April 1994, it was enough to moderate criticism of Israel in the US.

More lies in Guatemala

The Truth Commission of Guatemala published its final report in the beginning of 1999. In the report it was written that on March 19, 1998, the Israeli ambassador had replied on behalf of his government that “our inquiries indicate that there was no activity of assistance and training by Israeli officials” and that the Israeli government “does not have the possibility to receive information and cannot monitor initiatives by private Israeli citizens in Guatemala”.

Of course, tthe State of Israel’s response to the Guatemalan Truth Commission was a complete lie – dozens of official documents and telegrams in the Israeli National Archives prove that senior Israeli officials repeatedly approved military exports and were involved in them while knowing well about the atrocities taking place in Guatemala and why the military regime was buying weapons from Israel.

Starting in the mid-1970s, crimes against humanity were committed in Guatemala with Israeli military knowledge, equipment and services. For example, at the height of the violence, between the years 1978-1985, all the army forces used Galil rifles made in Israel. The massive Israeli involvement was also documented by international journalists covering the civil war in real time. This coverage caused Israel to suffer from only modest backlash in comparison to what it received about its relationship with South Africa, since the international interest in Guatemala was much smaller.

When the Truth Commission of Guatemala finally published its report, not many cared about Israel’s attempts to cover up its involvement in the crimes. The Cold War had ended, and the State of Israel was at the height of its popularity, between the signing of the Oslo Accords and the outbreak of the Second Intifada.

The same script in Myanmar

In 2016-2017, the State of Israel again saw a huge backlash after human rights activists filed a petition to the High Court of Justice to halt Israeli military exports to Myanmar and revealed details about the arms deals. The Israeli government again tried a strict policy of silence, refusing to respond to any claim but it didn’t work. The silence was especially absurd since the head of the Burmese army already revealed on his Facebook account the details of an agreement to purchase military equipment, knowledge and training from Israel.

Also, in his interviews for the Israeli media, Myanmar’s ambassador to Israel admitted that his country was purchasing weapons from Israel to circumvent the US and European arms embargo. Rather than condemning the extermination of the Rohingya, the Israeli foreign ministry summoned and reprimanded the Burmese ambassador for confirming the arms deals in the media.

Also read: ‘Yes, India Bought Pegasus’: Israeli Reporter Who Helped Break NYT Story Speaks to The Wire

On August 5, 2019, a UN investigation report on Myanmar was published. The UN investigation cited the State of Israel as one of the few countries that have sold arms to Myanmar in the years relevant to the crimes against the Rohingya. According to the report, although the State of Israel stopped its military exports following the petition to the Israeli High Court of Justice, it was prohibited in the first place from selling weapons to Myanmar, in light of the clear knowledge of the extent of crimes committed in Myanmar and the substantial risk that the weapons could help the security forces in the commission of crimes.

Israeli arms exports strategy envisaged shift to private firms

Until the 2000s, most Israeli companies engaged in defence exports were government entities. In a letter sent by General Yanush Ben Gal to the director general of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, David Kimchi, on September 30, 1984, he proposed the establishment of a  company owned jointly by private entities and by the foreign and defence ministries, since a “civilian company that does not appear on behalf of the State of Israel, will be able to penetrate more easily and flexibly to those countries that are afraid to act vis-à-vis the State of Israel openly”.

On October 15, 1984, foreign ministry legal adviser Eliakim Rubinstein noted that “legally the state can operate anywhere whether as a state or through government or mixed companies”, but he recommended that if it is an activity that cannot be done by the state itself or by a government company “then any other activity can be done through private companies”. Rubinstein explained that “a direct partnership of the state may also cause embarrassment and problems of a good name in the context of commercial activity”.

Rubinstein well predicted the dramatic change that would take place in the Israeli defence industry. In 2014, in a response to a FOIA petition, the Ministry of Defence revealed that there were already about 1,000 private companies, about 300 independent dealers, as well as about 7,000 Israeli people, all registered in the Defence Export Register of the Ministry of Defence.

The Pegasus revelations – and a new response

Beginning on July 18, 2021, the “Pegasus Project” – the product of an investigation by multiple media organisations including Ha’aretz in Israel, The Wire in India, the Guardian in the UK and Washington Post – began publishing details about how Israeli Pegasus spyware had been used by governments around the world to target journalists and dissidents. The Pegasus Project’s reporting convinced the United States to blacklist the spyware manufacturer – NSO Group – and damaged the company’s economic stability.

In Israel, the Pegasus Project led the government – and especially the Ministry of Defence – to adopt a new media strategy as a damage limitation exercise to divert the fire of criticism away from the state itself. The new strategy borrowed from the Pentagon the concept of  “embedding journalists“.

Prior to its invasion of Iraq in 2003, US officials warned journalists that they should leave Baghdad for their own safety. Almost all international journalists pulled out in the days preceding the invasion, while those reporters who were embedded in military units could mostly see a never-ending desert, and were kept away from the fighting and the catastrophic implications of the war on Iraqi civilians. This led to a distorted media and public perception of the invasion, and allowed the Bush administration to gain valuable time before significant public and political scrutiny of the war began.

Also read: Locating Pegasus in Doval’s Civil Society as New Frontier of War

The Israeli Ministry of the Defence seems to have started a programme for embedding journalists in the NSO Group. Inside the ministry, there is a department of the Director of Security of the Defence Establishment (its abbreviation in Hebrew is “Malmab”) that is responsible for ensuring classified information, including about the defence industry, will not be leaked. This department conducts its own investigations and operates as an intelligence agency. The practical implication is that the CEO of NSO Group, Hulio Shalev, is not able to even burp in front of a foreign or Israeli journalist, openly or unofficially, without Malmab’s approval. A company like NSO cannot publish or respond publicly or unofficially (as a “source”) to any accusation without Malmab signing off. This why Israeli defence companies usually refrain from commenting on negative articles about them.

For the first time in the history of the State of Israel, however, it has suddenly become possible for an Israeli defence company to express itself in the media quite widely. Since the first NSO scandal, published in the New York Times about Pegasus in Mexico in 2017, Malmab has allowed or at least not prevented the company and its CEO from speaking non-stop, to give responses and interviews to TV shows and to the written press. Journalists yearn for a word from Shalev’s mouth.

Malmab has ways of investigating leaks even when journalists do not publish their sources. In the case of defence companies like NSO, this it is not so complicated because, due to security classification restrictions, only a few employees in each Israeli company know the details about its business in foreign countries. Even when journalists have not hesitated to publish information they have identified as based on information from current or former NSO employees, Malmab has never opened an investigation. The fact that information and responses from NSO continue to flow speaks for itself. NSO and its CEO, Shalev, have become media celebrities.

Illustration: Pariplab Chakraborty

This media strategy works well for the State of Israel and its Ministry of Defence. Most international journalists deal with NSO as if it were a completely independent entity from the State of Israel. They easily ignore the fact that the very existence of NSO – whose employees are full of former military intelligence experts – is based on the Israeli authorities’ consent. The Israeli government could – through the Civil Service Law (Post Departure Limitations) of 1969, and the enforcement of relevant offences in its criminal panel code of 1977 – prevent former intelligence soldiers and officers from working for NSO. The Israeli government could also – through the Defence Export Control Law, 2007 – prevent NSO from selling anything to anyone by cancelling its licenses and not giving the company new ones. But it has never done any of these things.

The State of Israel and the Ministry of Defence are silent and allow NSO Group and its CEO to speak for them. There is almost no pressure or expectation from the international media on the Israeli government to respond to anything, and certainly not to take responsibility for the manner in which Pegasus has been, and is being, used around the world.

This journalistic failure has led to a distorted public perception, which will allow NSO to survive in one form or another, or allow other Israeli companies with similar spyware to replace NSO in the event of its collapse. The distorted public perception leads to the reality that while proceedings and investigations have been opened against the NSO Group around the world, there is no one asking questions about the State of Israel and the Israeli Ministry of Defence’s complicity in NSO’s activities. NSO may or may not survive, the victims of Pegasus, may or may not get justice but the Israeli government is confident it will emerge out of this scandal unsinged.

Eitay Mack is an Israeli human rights lawyer and activists, based between Oslo and Jerusalem, who filed legal petitions in Israel concerning its military relations with Guatemala, Myanmar, South Africa, and also to cancel the export licenses of NSO.

The featured image is an illustration by Pariplab Chakraborty. To view more such illustrations, click here.