On November 3, the US Department of Commerce announced that it would blacklist Israeli technology company NSO Group. The decision to add the company to the list of entities that engage in activities contrary to the national security of the United States or foreign policy interests was a critical one.
The Ministry of Commerce indicated in its press release on the matter:[there is] Evidence that these entities developed and provided spyware to foreign governments that used these tools to maliciously target government officials, journalists, businessmen, activists, academics, and embassy personnel. These tools have also enabled foreign governments to practice transnational repression, the practice of authoritarian governments that target dissidents, journalists, and activists outside their sovereign borders to silence dissent. Such practices threaten the rules-based international order.”
However, the Israeli government and the NSO decided to treat the matter as a public relations problem rather than a human rights crisis and tried to downplay it. The company initially tried to appear confident and published a statement “perplexed by the decision”. He then sent a “secret” letter to the Israeli government, which was “leaked,” asking for help to get the US government to remove the blacklist and help save hundreds of Israeli jobs.
The Israeli government has also tried to do some damage control. On November 25, the Israeli media widely reported a supposed decision of the Ministry of Defense to stop the sale of electronic technology to about 65 countries, including the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Morocco, etc. Not the bag, not the case; The department has simply added another bureaucratic step – the need for permission to start export negotiations with these countries – to the unobstructed process.
None of these damage control attempts seem to have helped. Moody’s lowered NSO’s rating and warned it was at risk of default, while US tech giant Apple pushed a lawsuit against the company for targeting iPhone users.
Indeed, blacklisting the United States could be a game-changer, and the beginning of a powerful American response to the challenge that the burgeoning surveillance industry poses to civil society and democratic movements around the world.
Organizations like Amnesty International, Citizen Lab, Banned Stories, Access Now, and numerous journalists and activists around the world, from India to Mexico and Hungary, to Israel, have long sounded alarm bells about NSO and other spyware companies, hoping that officials will ring in The United States and elsewhere will listen when they make policy decisions.
To do so, NSO and its supporters have accused critics of being liars and even part of an anti-Israel and anti-Semitic campaign. There was also a constant fear of being prosecuted for defamation by a powerful firm with enormous financial resources able to pay the expensive lawyers’ salaries.
For us, Israeli activists, there was also an obstacle to convincing the Israeli public of the danger of surveillance regimes, as many Israelis agreed to 24/7 Israeli surveillance of Palestinians living under a repressive military regime in the occupied territories.
While the US blacklisting of the NSO is a victory for civil society, it is also a disgrace to the Israeli parliament and judiciary that has refused to rein in surveillance firms or monitor the Defense Ministry’s dealings with them.
For decades, the Knesset has avoided any real discussion of defense export licenses to countries in conflict or under repressive regimes. It did little to respond to the Defense Department’s refusal to share details of its surveillance technology exports.
In 2015, she and MK Tamar Zandberg (current Minister of Environmental Protection) co-authored a proposed amendment to the 2007 Defense Export Control Law, which would restrict defense exports only to countries subject to a UN embargo. We adopted the text on the US “Leahy Act,” which prohibits US military assistance and exports to governments and security forces that violate human rights with impunity.
The Israeli defense and foreign ministries opposed the synchronization of Israeli legislation with US law. Subsequently, the Knesset failed to pass the motion.
The repeated attempts of a group of Israeli human rights activists, of which I was a part, to expose the Ministry of Defense’s complicity in crimes against humanity and genocide in other countries, and to stop export licenses to conflict areas and undemocratic regimes through the Israeli judiciary. The system was also largely unsuccessful. In fact, we have encountered continuous institutional gas lighting.
Judges and a state representative regularly tried to convince us that we were crazy or naive, and that if we weren’t already part of an anti-Israel movement, we were manipulated to become part of that movement unwittingly. At one hearing about arms shipments into a bloody civil war, a Supreme Court judge asked who is funding us and who is actually behind the petition; In another case, an administrative court judge requested clarification that we are not part of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement.
Despite the humiliating and frustrating hearings, we continued to press the petitions because this was a way to express solidarity with the growing list of victims of Israeli surveillance technologies and weapons, and because we still had a glimmer of hope that we would eventually succeed. We have had our rare victories, such as when the Ministry of Defense decided to halt all defense exports to Myanmar in late 2017.
But we also had our disappointing defeats. For example, in June, the Supreme Court rejected a petition seeking to revoke the license to export the Cellebrite system to Russia, which was used to hack the mobile phones of activists linked to opposition leader Alexei Navalny. The judges used this opportunity to block future petitions by ruling that the court system in Israel does not have the authority to oversee defense export policy.
Without the cooperation of the Knesset and the courts, it would have been very difficult and even impossible to press for a change in internal politics within Israel. This is why the US Department of Commerce’s decision is so important. It imposes much-needed external pressure on the Israeli authorities, who may have been completely shocked by the blacklist.
After all, they are quite accustomed to US non-interference in their defense export policies. Perhaps the only major clash between the US and Israeli governments on this issue occurred in the late 1990s, when the latter wanted to supply China with a Falcon reconnaissance aircraft. An agreement was eventually reached that would prohibit the supply of certain Israeli-made military equipment to Beijing and impose a requirement to obtain prior US approval for other defense exports.
For everything else, the US has mostly turned a blind eye. This policy dates back to the Cold War, when successive US administrations were satisfied with Israel’s doing Washington’s dirty work and supplied it with military technology for murderous dictatorships that faced US sanctions or aid cuts.
For example, the Israeli government and the Reagan administration famously cooperated in the Iran-Contra affair, which saw secret Israeli arms sales to banned Iran. Documents declassified in recent years show that senior US officials knew that Israel was providing training and arms shipments to dictatorial regimes, such as the military councils in Argentina and Chile in the 1970s and 1980s, but they didn’t really try to stop them.
After the Cold War ended, US inaction on problematic Israeli defense exports no longer made sense, particularly in cases where they seemed to serve the interests of China, Russia, or various dictators.
One has to wonder why the Clinton administration did not halt arms shipments from Israel to Serb forces during the Bosnian War. Why was Israel allowed to continue providing weapons, surveillance systems and training to the Myanmar military even after the start of the complete genocide against the Rohingya people? Why was Israel able to sell the Cellebrite hacking system to Venezuela, Belarus, Russia and China? And why did Israel continue to arm Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni’s illegal Special Security Unit while his regime clashed with the United States and accused its embassy of meddling in the local elections?
The big question now is whether the United States will stop at the NSO or whether it will make a major change in policy and move away from Cold War tactics and mentality. If the NSO escapes the blacklist and Washington fails to scale up its work against uncontrollable spyware exports, this will only reinforce the sense of impunity within the industry and the arrogance of the Israeli Ministry of Defense, whose workers typically seek integration into the intelligence industry after their retirement. from the public service.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of Al Jazeera.