KYIV, Ukraine – The Israeli government has in recent years rejected requests from Ukraine and Estonia to buy and use Pegasus – the powerful spyware – to hack into Russian cellphone numbers, according to people at flow of discussions.
Israel was concerned that selling the cyber weapon to adversaries of Russia would damage Israel’s relationship with the Kremlin, they said.
Ukraine and Estonia hoped to buy Pegasus to gain access to Russian phones, presumably as part of intelligence operations targeting their increasingly threatening neighbor in the years before Russia invaded Ukraine.
But Israel’s Defense Ministry has refused to license NSO Group, the company that makes Pegasus, to sell to Estonia and Ukraine if those nations’ goal is to use the weapon against Russia. The decisions came after years of Israel providing licenses to foreign governments that used the spyware as a tool of domestic repression.
Pegasus is a so-called no-click hacking tool, which means it can stealthily and remotely extract everything from a target’s mobile phone, including photos, contacts, messages and video recordings, without you the user has to click on a phishing link to give Pegasus remote access. It can also turn the cell phone into a secret tracking and recording device, allowing the phone to spy on its owner.
In the case of Ukraine, Pegasus’ claims date back several years. Since the Russian invasion of Crimea in 2014, the country increasingly sees itself as a direct target of Russian aggression and espionage. Ukrainian officials sought Israeli defense equipment to counter the Russian threat, but Israel imposed a near-total embargo on the sale of weapons, including Pegasus, to Ukraine.
In the Estonian case, negotiations to buy Pegasus began in 2018 and Israel first allowed Estonia to have the system, apparently unaware that Estonia planned to use the system to attack Russian phones. The Estonian government has made a large down payment on the $30 million it promised for the system.
The following year, however, a senior Russian defense official contacted Israeli security agencies to inform them that Russia had learned of Estonia’s plans to use Pegasus against Russia. After fierce debate among Israeli officials, the Israeli Defense Ministry banned Estonia from using the spyware on all Russian mobile numbers worldwide.
Israel’s relations with Russia have come under intense scrutiny since Russia began its invasion of Ukraine several weeks ago, and Ukrainian officials have publicly denounced the Israeli government for n offering only limited support to the embattled Ukrainian government and caving in to Russian pressure.
During a virtual speech at the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, on Sunday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky criticized Israel for not providing his country with the Iron Dome anti-missile system and other defensive weapons, and for not joining to other Western countries to impose strict economic sanctions on Russia.
Invoking the Holocaust, Zelensky said Russia’s war was aimed at destroying the Ukrainian people just as the Nazis had intended the destruction of the Jewish people. Mr Zelensky, who is Jewish, said “mediation can be between states, but not between good and evil.”
The New York Times reported last month that Israeli officials in August rejected a Ukrainian delegation’s request to buy Pegasus, at a time when Russian troops were massing on the Ukrainian border. On Wednesday morning, The Washington Post, which is part of a consortium of news outlets called The Pegasus Project, reported that these discussions dated back to 2019 and first reported that Israel had blocked Estonia’s efforts to get Pegasus.
A senior Ukrainian official familiar with attempts to acquire the Pegasus system said Ukrainian intelligence officials were disappointed when Israel refused to allow Ukraine to buy the system, which could have been key to monitor Russian military programs and assess the country’s foreign policy objectives.
Representatives of the Ukrainian Embassy in Washington and the Estonian Foreign Ministry declined to comment. In a statement, NSO said the company “cannot refer to alleged customers and will not refer to hearsay and political innuendo.”
Ukraine and Estonia were once part of the Soviet Union and have since had to live in the shadow of the Russian military. Estonia is a member of NATO.
Russia plays a powerful role throughout the Middle East, particularly in Syria, and Israel is wary of crossing Moscow over critical security issues. In particular, Russia has generally allowed Israel to strike Iranian and Lebanese targets inside Syria – raids that the Israeli military considers essential to stem the flow of weapons that Iran is sending to proxy forces. stationed near Israel’s northern border.
The Israeli government has long viewed Pegasus as an essential tool for its foreign policy. An article in this year’s New York Times Magazine revealed how, for more than a decade, Israel has made strategic decisions about which countries it allows to obtain licenses for Pegasus and which countries to deny them.
The Israeli government has authorized the purchase of Pegasus by authoritarian governments, including Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, which have used the weapon to spy on dissidents, human rights activists and journalists in these country. Democratically elected leaders in India, Hungary, Mexico, Panama, and other countries have also abused Pegasus to spy on their political opponents.
Israel used this tool as a bargaining chip in diplomatic negotiations, notably in the secret talks that led to the so-called Abraham Accords that normalized relations between Israel and many of its historic Arab adversaries.
“Political decisions regarding export controls take into account security and strategic considerations, which include compliance with international agreements,” the Israeli Defense Ministry said in a statement in response to questions from The Times. “As a matter of principle, the State of Israel approves the export of cyber products exclusively to government entities, for lawful use, and only for the purpose of preventing and investigating crime and counterterrorism, under end-use/end-user statements provided by government procurement.
Since NSO first sold Pegasus to the Mexican government over a decade ago, the spyware has been used by dozens of countries to track down criminals, terrorists and drug traffickers. But the abuse of the tool has also been extended, from Saudi Arabia’s use of Pegasus in a brutal crackdown on dissent inside the kingdom, to Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban authorizing its services. intelligence and law enforcement to deploy the spyware against its political adversaries.
Last November, the Biden administration placed NSO and another Israeli cyber company on a “blacklist” of companies that are not allowed to do business with American companies. The Commerce Department said the companies’ tools “have enabled foreign governments to conduct transnational repression, which is the practice of authoritarian governments targeting dissidents, journalists, and activists outside their sovereign borders to silence dissent. “.
Ronen Bergman reported from Kyiv and Mark Mazzetti from Washington.