TEL AVIV — The Israeli justice ministry announced Monday that its weekslong investigation had found no evidence to suggest the Israeli police had systematically bypassed judicial oversight to hack the phones of civilians.
The announcement contradicted recent claims in the Israeli news media that rogue detectives had used surveillance software made by NSO Group, a major Israeli spyware firm blacklisted in the United States, to illegally hack dozens of activists, local politicians, business executives and senior civil servants, as well as both critics and associates of Benjamin Netanyahu, the former prime minister.
The justice ministry said that police investigators had never hacked 23 of the 26 people mentioned in recent investigations published by Calcalist, an Israeli business news daily, and had obtained court approval to target the remaining three, only one of which was successfully infiltrated.
The flurry of allegations and rebuttals reflected how, following years of prolonged global scrutiny but little domestic criticism, NSO has finally become the focus of debate and investigation inside Israel itself.
For more than a decade, NSO, with the permission and support of the Israeli government, sold spyware to numerous foreign democracies, including the United States and in Western Europe, as well as to foreign authoritarian states who used it to hack the phones of dissidents, lawyers and politicians. That led to investigations into NSO by foreign news outlets and cyber watchdogs, contributed to the Biden administration’s decision to blacklist NSO last year, and helped draw international awareness to a new breed of hacking software that allows governments to secretly access every component of a private individual’s phone.
After a decade of relative anonymity inside Israel, NSO entered the domestic spotlight in January, after Calcalist alleged that NSO spyware had been used not only against foreigners, but illegally against Israelis themselves.
The outlet’s investigation was hailed as a triumph of investigative journalism and stirred a fierce debate about the state of Israeli democracy and the role of surveillance in Israeli society.
But the government’s counterinvestigation has proved almost as shocking, since it entirely refuted the earlier reporting about the Israeli police’s behavior.
Led by the deputy attorney general, Amit Marari, the government investigation team included technology experts from the Shin Bet, Israel’s domestic intelligence agency, and the Mossad, its foreign espionage agency.
Members of the team reached their conclusions by accessing logs that detailed how officers used the spyware and which the police were not able to tamper with, according to a former Israeli official familiar with the investigators’ methods, who could not be identified because of the sensitive legal issues involved. The investigators checked their work by seeing whether it was possible to alter the logs themselves without leaving a digital trace, which they concluded was impossible.
Advance leaks of the justice ministry’s findings prompted some commentators to question whether Calcalist had been the victim of a hoax.
Calcalist’s report was “one of the biggest media failures in Israel since the establishment of the state,” wrote Mordechai Gilat, a veteran investigative reporter and columnist for Haaretz, a rival newspaper. “What was published was not a journalistic investigation, nor a cousin of a journalistic investigation, nor even a distant relative,” Mr. Gilat added.
Responding to the government investigation, Calcalist said that its conclusions “require serious consideration and re-examination of the findings and allegations we published.”
The outlet added, “we will not hesitate to correct as much as necessary,” but also maintained that the government investigation “completely validates Calcalist’s revelations, according to which the police use super-invasive offensive spyware to infect civilians’ phones.”
In several articles and tweets published in recent days and weeks, the journalist who led the Calcalist investigations, Tomer Ganon, repeatedly stood by his findings.
But Mr. Ganon said he would not be rushed into providing further evidence, and could not yet do so for fear of harming his sources.
“I have sworn to my sources: I will protect you until all the truth is revealed,” he wrote on Saturday. In another tweet, he wrote: “In this poker against the state, the cards will only be drawn when we decide it is the right moment.”
Despite several attempts, The New York Times was not able to confirm that there was any validity to Calcalist’s allegations.
Mr. Ganon briefly deleted his Twitter account in the buildup to the justice ministry’s announcement, as news began to leak about its conclusions. But Mr. Ganon’s account reappeared after conspiracy theorists hypothesized that he had been assassinated by his political enemies. Skeptics of his reporting nevertheless acknowledge that there are wider questions for Israel to answer about the surveillance of civilians, regardless of the veracity of Calcalist’s allegations.
Some question whether the police should have the power to monitor civilians’ phones in the first place, with or without a court order. And legal experts are concerned that Israel’s wiretapping laws, written before the rise of the internet, are unfit to regulate modern phones that can surf the web and store thousands of videos, images and emails.
Several arms of the Israeli government have bought NSO spyware during the past decade, including the Shin Bet and Mossad. At the encouragement of Mr. Netanyahu, the Israeli police have used spyware since 2015, infiltrating more than 200 targets in the past two years. And Mr. Netanyahu’s government frequently permitted the sale of NSO products to foreign governments to win favor internationally.
But despite his government championing spyware while in office, Mr. Netanyahu has since tried to use the backlash against NSO to discredit his own ongoing corruption trial.
In a recent twist, the trial’s prosecutors acknowledged that police used spyware to infiltrate the phone of a key state witness in Mr. Netanyahu’s trial, for several hours longer than a court had permitted. The prosecutors also said police had also not sought court approval to download a contacts list saved to the witness’s phone.
These admissions gave fresh momentum to attempts by Mr. Netanyahu’s supporters and lawyers to force the suspension or collapse of his trial.
“We have a new Watergate in Israel,” Yair Netanyahu, the former premier’s son, told Newsmax on Sunday. “Corrupt policemen and corrupt judicial bureaucrats in the state prosecution illegally spied on my father.”
Ronen Bergman reported from Tel Aviv and Patrick Kingsley from Jerusalem.