Oct 21, 2021 - World

Scoop: Israel and France hold secret talks to end NSO spyware crisis

Anyone listening? Photo: Leon Neal/Getty Images

Israeli national security adviser Eyal Hulata secretly visited Paris several days ago for talks with his counterparts at the Élysée aimed at ending the crisis around the alleged use of Pegasus spyware developed by Israeli firm NSO to hack the cell phones of President Emmanuel Macron and other top French officials, Israeli officials tell me.

Why it matters: The alleged misuse of NSO software has become a major diplomatic headache for Prime Minister Naftali Bennett's government. The crisis led to a partial freeze on diplomatic, security and intelligence cooperation between Israel and France and the suspension of high-level bilateral visits.

Driving the news: Hulata met in Paris with Macron’s national security adviser, Emmanuel Bonne, briefed him on the ongoing Israeli investigation into Pegasus and presented him with a proposal to end the crisis.

  • The Israeli proposal included a commitment to ban the hacking of French mobile phone numbers in any future spyware deal between an Israeli firm and a third country.
  • A similar ban already exists on hacking U.S. and U.K. numbers.

The backstory: An international consortium of investigative journalists reported in July that Pegasus — designed to track terrorists and criminals — had become a valuable tool for governments to spy on journalists and critics.

  • Among the countries listed in the reports as NSO clients are Hungary, India, Mexico, Morocco and Saudi Arabia.
  • Some of the most explosive media reports at the time involved Morocco's alleged use of Pegasus to hack the phones of Macron and other French officials.

Flashback: Macron called Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett to seek an explanation.

  • Bennett told Macron he had inherited the NSO issue from his predecessor, Benjamin Netanyahu, and was conducting an investigation.
  • Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz traveled to Paris at the time and briefed his French counterpart about that investigation.

What’s next: The talks between Israel and France are ongoing but Israeli officials say they hope a solution to end the crisis could be reached soon.

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