Few firms have displayed such a brass neck as NSO Group over the past couple of years.
When the spyware developer was included in Time magazine’s “most influential companies of 2022” list, it promptly celebrated the “big news.”
Being “influential” is not necessarily positive. After noting that the spyware – known as Pegasus – could “steal personal data” from mobile phone apps, Time added that “some governments have reportedly used it to target political dissidents, activists and even the wife of murdered journalist Jamal Khashoggi.”
Despite being linked to an infamous murder, NSO Group boasted it was “proud” to be one of just two Israeli businesses on the list. The firm promised to continue developing “life-saving technologies.”
The report cites testimony that “Israel’s readiness to test new surveillance systems on Palestinians” provides “incentives for a business model” from which NSO has benefited.
Buyers of Pegasus – among them at least 14 European Union countries – are “contributing to human rights violations,” the report states.
Those conclusions do not tell the full story of the inquiry. One aspect of it that has escaped scrutiny involves an attempt to shield Israel from criticism.
The attempt was made by Lukas Mandl, an Austrian member of the European Parliament.
Mandl took issue with how the report implicates Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister.
The report says that Hungary and Poland bought Pegasus in 2017 after their leaders met Netanyahu. Mandl proposed amendments aimed at removing Netanyahu’s name.
Similarly, Mandl tried to save the Israeli military from embarrassment.
One of the spyware entrepreneurs whose name popped up during the inquiry was Tal Dilian, who heads the Intellexa consortium.
Mandl requested that a certain biographical detail about Dilian be dropped from the report – that he had a “former career” in Israel’s army.
Cyprus, the report notes, has become the base of almost 30 Israeli companies, using the island to gain a foothold in the European market.
The report suggests there is a “close connection between the trade in spyware and diplomatic relations.” Cyprus has allegedly received Pegasus and other products in return for accommodating Israeli firms.
Mandl sought the removal of the observation about the warm rapport between Israel and Cyprus – something that has been well-documented and even promoted by Netanyahu. Instead of that observation, Mandl wanted a sentence inserted about how Israeli firms in Cyprus are “not related to the Israeli government.”
Another amendment which Mandl proposed implied that Israeli firms are moving to Cyprus by happenstance. He wanted to strike out a comment in the report on how several firms relocated to Europe – particularly Cyprus – “each time the regime for export licenses was tightened in Israel.”
All such tightening, it should be stressed, took place in response to the Pegasus controversy. It is nonetheless telling that spyware firms now feel they can operate more freely in the EU – where barriers to their activities are easily navigated – than in Israel.
Mandl’s efforts to place some distance between spyware firms and Israel are dishonest.
NSO is actually among the firms now based in Europe. Rather than Cyprus, it has picked Luxembourg as its new home.
As Antony Loewenstein – author of The Palestine Laboratory said recently, media reporting on Pegasus generally missed the point by framing NSO almost as a rogue company. Far from being rogue, NSO is, in Loewenstein’s words, “an arm of the Israeli state.”
Lukas Mandl may not be transparent about his activities on Pegasus.
Since the current European Parliament term began in 2019, Mandl has divulged that he took part in one expenses-paid trip to the Middle East. Apart from that, he has not registered a single meeting with Israel or its advocacy groups on the European Parliament website.
His apparent lack of transparency is at odds with his willingness to be photographed hanging out with pro-Israel lobbyists.He has for some time been a key player in Transatlantic Friends of Israel, a group bringing together elected representatives from both Europe and the US.
While the Pegasus inquiry report remains critical of Israel – Mandl’s efforts notwithstanding – it is not as hard-hitting as it ought to be.
No sanctions on Israel are demanded – just talks to “establish a framework for spyware marketing and export licenses.”
By making such weak demands, the European Parliament is accepting that Israeli firms will continue milking the opportunities afforded by the oppression of Palestinians. The “framework for spyware marketing” it covets may ultimately mean that Israel goes on turning a brutal occupation to its commercial advantage.