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Defense Minister Gantz (L), Foreign MInister Lapid (C) and Prime Minister Bennett. Photo: Ilia Yefimovich/picture alliance via Getty

The Israeli government is forming a special team to manage the fallout from reports that software developed by Israeli firm NSO was used by governments around the world to spy on journalists, human rights activists and possibly world leaders, two Israeli officials tell me.

Why it matters: So far, this is primarily a media crisis for Israel. But senior Israeli officials are concerned it could morph into a diplomatic crisis.

Driving the news: An international consortium of investigative journalists reported on Sunday that NSO's "Pegasus" software — 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 and Saudi Arabia.

  • The Israeli officials told Axios that NSO's export license included terms about the misuse of spyware, the reports would likely influence future deals involving NSO and other Israeli companies.
  • “It is a very substantial crisis," a senior Israeli official told me. "We are trying to fully understand its ramifications. We will have to check whether the reports about NSO warrant a change in our policy regarding the export of offensive cyber technology to other countries."

What they're saying: A hint of the possible diplomatic fallout was provided Wednesday by the U.K.’s cyber czar, Lindy Cameron.

  • “We now see states that cannot build high end capability being able to buy it," Cameron said at a cyber conference in Tel Aviv, adding that it was "vital that all cyber actors use capabilities in a way that is legal, responsible and proportionate to ensure cyberspace remains a safe and prosperous place for everyone. And we will work with allies to achieve this."

Israeli Minister of Defense Benny Gantz spoke at the same conference and said Israel was "studying" reports about the alleged use of the Pegasus software in violation of the terms of its export license. 

  • “We approve the export of cyber products only to governments and only for lawful use in order to prevent crime and terrorism. Countries who purchase those systems must adhere to the conditions of use," Gantz said.
  • NSO continues to deny the reports and claim to have taken all possible steps to ensure its software wasn't used for anything other than fighting crime and terrorism.  

Details: The interagency team includes representatives from the Ministry of Defense, which is in charge of defense export licenses, the Foreign Ministry, the Ministry of Justice, the Mossad spy agency, military intelligence and other agencies.

What's next: The team plans to start a discussion with NSO about the reports while also performing damage control over the diplomatic, security and legal ramifications, the Israeli officials said.

Go deeper

Sep 13, 2021 - World

Leaders of Egypt and Israel hold rare public meeting

Bennett (L) with Sisi. Photo: Israeli govenrment press office

Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett became the first Israeli prime minister in 11 years to pay an official visit to an Egyptian president on Monday, meeting Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in the coastal resort city of Sharm el-Sheikh.

Why it matters: This was an effort by Sisi to establish good relations with the new Israeli government, and the Egyptians made every effort to give Bennett an unusually warm and public welcome.

GOP Rep. Gonzalez retires in face of Trump-backed primary

Ohio Rep. Anthony Gonzalez (R) Photographer: Stefani Reynolds/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Ohio Rep. Anthony Gonzalez (R) announced his retirement on Thursday, declining to run against a Trump-backed primary challenger in 2022.

Why it matters: Gonzalez has suffered politically since siding with House Democrats to impeach the 45th president after the Capitol riot.

Swing voters oppose Texas abortion law

Protesters at a rally at the Texas State Capitol. Photo: Jordan Vonderhaar/Getty Images

All 10 swing voters in Axios’ latest focus groups — including those who described themselves as "pro-life" — said they oppose Texas' new anti-abortion law.

Why it matters: If their responses reflect larger patterns in U.S. society, this could hurt Republicans with women and independents in next year's midterm elections. The swing voters cited overreach, invasion of privacy and concerns about frivolous lawsuits jamming up the courts.