The Israeli firm NSO – makers of Pegasus spyware – must be banned

Phyllis Bennis and Omar Barghouti

The Nation  /  December 3, 2021

And why the Biden administration has taken unprecedented action against a company with such deep ties to the Israeli government.

Contrary to Israeli claims, NSO is closely connected to, licensed, regulated, and supported by the Israeli government. Apple’s lawsuit goes further, accusing Israel of “sponsoring” and enabling NSO. The Israeli government, as reported in the Israeli media, “considers NSO’s software a crucial component of its foreign policy and national security.”

The Israeli paper Haaretz has tracked the strong correlation between Israel’s foreign policy objectives and NSO sales in countries led by dictators or authoritarian regimes. It concluded that the Israeli state “worked proactively to get Israeli cyberweapon companies, first and foremost NSO, to operate in these countries, despite their problematic records on democracy and human rights.” Haaretz presented evidence of Israeli government corruption to partially explain the company’s collusion with NSO.

Israel is not accustomed—to put it mildly—to being placed in the basket of potential threats to US national security with Russia. After all, regardless of which party is in power, the United States has for decades been Israel’s enabler, military funder and armor against international accountability. It has consistently singled out Israel for special treatment, showering it with unconditional, mostly military, funding. For Washington to now list Israeli spyware companies as a substantial menace is causing panic in Israel. And the fact that journalists are already asking whether the Biden administration plans to pressure Israel to rein in NSO, as it has pressured Russia over cyber-hacking, is likely only exacerbating this panic.

According to research by Amnesty International and Forbidden Stories, NSO’s Pegasus spyware has been used to spy on governments and heads of state, political dissidents, journalists, and human rights activists, among others. The firm’s customers have included despotic and autocratic regimes, from Saudi ArabiaMorocco, and the United Arab Emirates to IndiaHungaryMexico, and beyond. French President Emmanuel Macron and 14 government ministers have had their cell phones hacked by Pegasus spyware, as has South African President Cyril Ramaphosa.

Pegasus is but one example of Israeli military, intelligence, and security products and doctrines that get “battle-tested” on the millions of captive Palestinians living under military occupation in Gaza and the West Bank, including East Jerusalem. Unquestionably Pegasus, among other invasive Israeli mass surveillance tools, contributes to Palestinian disempowerment and dispossession under Israel’s decades-long regime of apartheid and persecution. Just weeks ago, it was revealed that Israel used Pegasus to spy on staff members of the six globally respected Palestinian human rights and civil rights organizations that it falsely smeared and outlawed.

But all this incriminating evidence against NSO was not the reason behind Biden’s decision. What was then? Aside from responding to the business community’s outrage, going after NSO, without explicitly targeting the Israeli state, could also be a way to appease the Democratic Party’s civil libertarian majority—including Congress members who in July called on Biden to pressure Israel to leash NSO—without risking an all-out politically-damaging confrontation with Israel and its US lobbies.

Biden almost certainly had in mind as well the fast-growing progressive base of his party. Polls showing the dramatic drop in Israel’s approval ratings among Democrats and the rising support for Palestinian rights, even for the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, in US public opinion, including a large minority of young Jewish Americans, are rarely acknowledged in the White House. But they are too consistent to ignore. The influence of the Palestinian rights movement has not only led to this unmistakable shift in US public and media discourse on the issue in recent years, but also to the election to Congress of advocates of Palestinian human rights and equality, mainly women and largely people of color, both key Biden constituencies.

Nevertheless, the Biden administration has continued longstanding US policies supporting Israel’s system of oppression against Palestinians. Those include maintaining the $3.8 billion in annual military funding, with another $1 billion this year for the Iron Dome missile defense system, shielding Israel from accountability at the United Nations, and supporting its desperate efforts to delegitimize or even criminalize the BDS movement, and more.

Biden has also left intact most of the anti-Palestinian policy shifts that Donald Trump imposed in blatant defiance of international law. Among these are keeping the US embassy in Jerusalem, approving Israel’s 1981 annexation of the Syrian Golan Heights, and legitimizing its patently illegal colonial settlements on land occupied since 1967. The White House is also pushing the so-called Abraham Accords, a set of normalization agreements between Israel and several Arab regimes. Most importantly, it has signaled its acceptance of Israel’s long-standing domination of Palestinians through racial discrimination and apartheid, which in 2018 culminated in the so-called “Jewish Nation-State Law.” Recent reports by Human Rights Watch and Israel’s leading human rights organization, B’Tselem, confirm that Israel imposes apartheid upon Palestinians.

For Palestinians and human rights supporters everywhere, then, the US government remains Israel’s key sponsor. The “blacklisting” of NSO is absolutely necessary—but it cannot be equated with ending ongoing US support of Israeli apartheid and its crimes against the Palestinian people. Still, Palestinians continue to call for an international ban on all spyware, including Pegasus—keeping in mind Edward Snowden’s important observation: “Their only products are infection vectors. They’re not security products.… They don’t make vaccines—the only thing they sell is the virus.”

A global ban on NSO would be a welcome first step toward cutting all military funding to and military trade with Israel until it fully respects Palestinian rights by ending its occupation, dismantling its apartheid regime, and respecting the universally recognized rights of Palestinian refugees.

Phyllis Bennis is a fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington DC and serves on the national board of Jewish Voice for Peace; she is the author of Before & After: US Foreign Policy and the War on Terrorism

Omar Barghouti is a Palestinian human rights defender and cofounder of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement for Palestinian rights