Pegasus affairGrowing Unease in Israel over Pegasus Case

Published 21 July 2021

Israel is worried that the Pegasus spyware revelations may turn a PR black eye into a diplomatic crisis. Israel never exhibited any qualms about dealing with and selling arms to pretty unsavory regimes, but such deals were typically kept secret. The fact that the Israeli Ministry of Defense authorized the NSO Group to sell the Pegasus spyware to regimes which then used it to spy on opposition figures, civil society activists, and journalists – and, in the case of Saudi Arabia, to track Jamal Khashoggi and kill him — has raised questions about what did the government know and when did it know it.

Israel, which, by all accounts, is one of the world’s most advanced nations when it comes to military and intelligence high-tech, is noticeably uncomfortable with the revelations about how the Pegasus spyware, developed by Israeli cyber firm NSO Group, has been used by the rulers of dozens of countries to spy on and track opposition figures, human rights activists, journalist, and civil society activists.

Some forty-five countries have acquired and deployed the Pegasus package – quite a few of them for what the company said it created the software for: tracking terrorists and criminals.

But in many countries – either undemocratic ones such as Bahrain, UAE, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, and Saudi Arabia; or democratic ones such as India and Mexico – the spyware was used to spy on domestic critics of the regime; or journalists who dared exhibit a degree of independence.

There was also one EU member state among the countries deploying Pegasus: Hungary. The deployment of Pegasus, which the government of Viktor Orban has used to spy on journalists, human rights activists, opposition politicians, and a couple of millionaires which challenged Orban’s power, is a serious breach of EU privacy and surveillance rules. This episode will only increase the pressure by leading EU members, chief among them Germany and France, to expel Hungary from the EU (the EU is suing Hungary for a discriminatory law it is about to pass against the Hungarian LGBT community, and the country is also facing a 6-months suspension of its membership for its growing authoritarianism and its treatment of immigrants).

Israel has exhibited no qualms dealing with and selling arms to the most wretched regimes and people (for example, it sold weapons and shared nuclear weapons know-how with the apartheid-era South Africa; sold weapons to the Hutus in Rwanda in the spring of 1994, while the Hutus conducted the massacre of the Tutsis; and looked the other way when Israeli arms and military advice were provided to the Colombian drug cartels).

But these and other unsavory actions were always kept in strict secrecy and became known only years later.

The Pegasus imbroglio is hitting the headlines in real time.

The NSO Group was created in 2013 by veterans of Unit 8200, the Israeli military’s vaunted signal intelligence branch. The company has a few hundred employees, at least 200 of whom are 8200 graduates.