Lessons need to be learned from the NSO issue – analysis

Since US President Joe Biden took office in January, various experts and politicians have predicted that it would be only a matter of time before jarring chords are struck in the US-Israel relationship.

Some bet it would be the settlement issue, while others were sure that the Iranian nuclear deal would be the catalyst. Still, others were convinced that Biden’s campaign promise to reopen a consulate in Jerusalem would be the first source of significant tension.

However, they were all wrong.

Sure, the settlement issue has created tension, but the trigger for the first full-blown mini-crisis between Jerusalem and Washington was none of the above. Rather, it was the Herzliya-based high-tech company NSO Group that specializes in a surveillance system called Pegasus that it says is designed to track terrorists and criminals.

On November 3, the US Department of Commerce blacklisted NSO, accusing foreign governments of using Pegasus to “maliciously target government officials, journalists, businessmen, activists, academics, and embassy workers.” A statement issued by the department said that NSO and a spin-off called Cnadiru acted “against the national security or foreign policy interests of the United States.”

A man walks past the logo of the Israeli cyber company NSO Group at one of its branches in the Arava desert, southern Israel, on July 22, 2021 (credit: REUTERS / AMIR COHEN)

NSO receives an export license from the unit of the Ministry of Defense that oversees the sale of defense technology abroad. The United States is moving, according to a New York Times Monday’s story, therefore, was viewed in Jerusalem not only as directed at the company, but at the Israeli government. Finally a mini crisis was born in the Biden-Bennett era.

The move, which will scare off NSO investors and ban US companies from selling the company’s technology, came just two days after NSO was reportedly the subject of a conversation in talks that Prime Minister Naftali Bennett He held with French President Emmanuel Macron on the sidelines of Glasgow. climate conference.

NSO and Pegasus have been a thorn in the side of Israel-France relations since July, when an investigation claimed Morocco used the software to hack Macron’s phone. The investigation, which made headlines around the world, found that several governments with poor human rights records, including Morocco, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, used the software to hack the phones of journalists, dissidents and rights activists. humans.

NSO’s blacklisting also came two weeks after Israel announced that it designated six Palestinian NGOs as terrorist organizations because of their connections to the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP).

On Monday Amnesty International and two other human rights groups accused Pegasus of having been used to hack the phones of six employees of these Palestinian NGOs. The United States criticized Israel’s decision to designate NGOs as terrorist organizations at the time, and many are now connecting the dots between American discontent over the NGO designation and the NSO blacklisting.

Interestingly, Bennett and other top government officials have been largely silent about the recent developments of the NSO, conveniently hiding behind the fact that it is a private company.

As Chancellor Yair Lapid said at a press conference on Saturday night, “NSO is a private company, it is not a government project and therefore even if it is designated [blacklisted]It has nothing to do with the policies of the Israeli government ”.

Lapid went on to say that he does not believe there is another country in the world that “has such strict rules regarding cyber warfare, and is enforcing them, more than Israel.”

While all of that may be true, Bennett and Lapid are burying their heads in the sand if they think this line will be enough to solve the problem.

If Israel’s rules regarding cyberwarfare were so strict, as Lapid said, Jerusalem would not now be in the awkward position of having to answer tough questions from Paris, Washington and elsewhere about the company’s activities.

The issue echoes one that clouded ties between the United States and Israel in the early 2000s: the sale of the Phalcon airborne radar system to China. Israel was forced by US pressure to cancel the lucrative $ 2 billion deal, something that, in addition to causing enormous tension with Washington, also significantly set back ties between Israel and China.

As a result of the lessons learned from that incident, the Defense Ministry established a unit in 2006, the Defense Export Control Agency, to monitor technology sales to ensure that the sale of defense weapons and technology does not fall into the hands. unpleasant or harm Israel. foreign relations and national interests.

However, the unit apparently misunderstood Pegasus or the world’s reaction to the use of spyware by various governments. Part of the problem is that cyber warfare is so new that there are no international regulations and conventions governing its use to the extent that it exists with respect to traditional warfare. The area is cloudy.

In September, Lapid told foreign journalists that Israel could exercise limited control over its defense exports.

“Once the jet, the cannon, the gun or the missile, or Pegasus, has been sold, it is in the hands of the government that bought it,” Lapid said. “So we are doing everything we can to make sure it doesn’t fall into the wrong hands. But no one has the ability to fully protect the other side after it is sold. “

In the case of the NSO, however, “doing our best” was well below the mark and, as a result, Israel is now reaping some rotten diplomatic rewards.

As was the case after the Phalcon debacle, the country needs to learn the lessons from this incident and institute safeguards so that relations with key governments around the world are not compromised, and Israel’s foreign relations and national interests are not. are harmed by the government. shares of private Israeli cyber companies.


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