The Pegasus case: the dark side of the Israeli “start-up nation”

On the walls of his small office in downtown Jerusalem, Itai Mack hung black and white photos of the struggle for civil rights in the United States and posters of the NGO Amnesty International. This young lawyer devotes his career to the analysis of sales of arms and sensitive technologies in Israel, and especially the abuses linked to them. The NSO case, named after the Israeli company that supplied Pegasus software to authoritarian states to monitor opponents, journalists and politicians, sheds light on this dark side of the Israeli “start-up nation”.

“This affair has dramatically exposed the trade relations between Israeli companies and regimes that do not care about human rights, says the lawyer. Over the past two decades, Europe and the United States have made progress towards respecting ethical criteria in military trade, they have imposed embargoes on countries with which Israel continues to work. We absolutely must respect the same red lines as Western countries. ”

Israel confronted with the excesses of its companies

Usually, Itai Mack’s fighting leaves the Israeli political class and media unmoved. Most of his appeals to the Supreme Court were dismissed. But the global cataclysm caused by the NSO-Pegasus affair is plunging Israel and its new government into embarrassment: the Knesset has just created a commission of inquiry and, under international pressure, the Minister of Defense has promised transparency. “Israel, as a liberal Western democracy, controls its cybersecurity exports in accordance with the military export law,” said Benny Gantz, promising “appropriate action” in the event of an NSO slippage.

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In practice, every contract between a cybersecurity company and a foreign country must receive the approval of the API, the control body of the Israeli Ministry of Defense. In the case of a spy system, the API conditions its use only in the fight against terrorism and crime. “NSO could not have sold a match without the agreement of the Israeli government,” said Gabi Siboni, an ex-worker in the sector, now a researcher at the Jerusalem center for strategy and security. contract but, by nature, the interpretation of restrictions is necessarily elastic. For example, one should obviously not spy on a journalist but, on the other hand, a journalist can also be a potential terrorist. It is up to the Israeli government to check with the countries concerned if the rules have been broken. ”

“NSO could not have sold a match without the agreement of the Israeli government.” Gabi Siboni, Former Israeli New Tech Sector

Calls for international regulation, launched in particular by Edward Snowden, have received little echo in a country where electronic surveillance is perceived as a legitimate and effective response to enemy threats, led by Iran. In addition, several specialists warn against overly restrictive regulation, which would prove to be counterproductive. “Banning the sale of this type of software would shift the problem,” assures Daniel Cohen, a cybersecurity expert at the Blavatnik center in Herzlya, near Tel Aviv. Authoritarian regimes would buy these systems on the darknet, and the possibilities for control would be much less than today. ”

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, himself a multimillionaire thanks to cybersecurity, said this week that 41% of global investments in the sector go to Israeli companies. This overwhelming domination has allowed the Jewish state to forge unexpected diplomatic alliances, especially with Morocco, where Foreign Minister Yaïr Lapid is due to visit on Monday in order to seal the normalization initiated this winter.

From ‘Uzi diplomacy’ to Pegasus’ diplomacy

According to the Israeli press, the diplomatic breakthroughs of recent years, from rapprochement with India and Rwanda to standardization with the United Arab Emirates, Morocco and Bahrain, are systematically accompanied by the sale of the Pegasus software. “In the 1960s, it was called ‘Uzi diplomacy’, says Itai Mack. Israel was selling its submachine gun to all kinds of unsavory regimes in exchange for support in international forums. espionage like Pegasus follows exactly the same logic. ”

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In the past, this diplomatic alliance strategy based on arms sales has not always paid off. The Yom Kippur War in 1973 thus called into question years of relations with African countries based on military trade. But the normalization agreements with the UAE or Morocco seem otherwise more solid and should encourage Israel to continue to use without too much restraint its precious softpower.


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