Israel needs to reassure France it intends to review and reform its defense export policies if it wants to minimize the diplomatic fallout from the NSO Group spyware saga, foreign relations experts warn.
Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz is slated to meet with his French counterpart, Florence Parly, in Paris this week to discuss high-profile allegations linked to the Pegasus spyware scandal, as well as the crisis in Lebanon and nuclear talks with Iran.
The Pegasus spyware was developed by the Israeli firm NSO and was allegedly used by the Moroccan government to target French President Emmanuel Macron. The powerful software, which can covertly collect a phone’s data and turn on its camera or microphone, is at the heart of a massive scandal, allegedly used by authoritarian governments to target journalists, human rights activists, politicians and others around the globe. Some 50,000 phone numbers are purportedly linked to the malware.
The NSO Group has repeatedly denied the mass spying claims and stressed that Pegasus is intended for use solely against criminals and terrorists.
Ahead of Gantz’s trip, some have cautioned that the health of Israeli-French relations rests on how the Israeli government responds to the serious allegations. Though NSO is privately owned, its products require government approval to be sold abroad.
“Everything will depend on the response of the Israeli government,” Jean-Pierre Maulny, deputy director of the Paris-based French Institute for International and Strategic Affairs (IRIS), told The Media Line.
Maulny, who also heads the Armament Industry European Group (ARES Group) − a network of European security and defense specialists − believes Gantz will be asked some tough questions in Paris.
“Israel will have to cooperate in an investigation to identify the flaws in its export [laws] in relation to the use of this software,” Maulny said. “If they don’t, their public image will suffer and a lack of trust will set in.”
Macron reportedly spoke with Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett last week to express concern over the hacking software. A Presidency official also revealed that Macron changed his mobile phone number, although it has not been proven that he was actually a target of the malware.
Though it is difficult at present to determine the extent of the damage the scandal has caused to France-Israel ties, Gantz will likely be asked to clarify the precise nature of the Israeli government’s connection to NSO.
“Israel is not an ally of France, nor is it a member of NATO; however, it is not an enemy state either,” Maulny explained. “They will therefore be asked to put more safeguards in place. … It’s possible that there will be a strong response [from Paris] but it will likely be symbolic in nature and then things will return to normal.”
Because charges of negligence will be difficult to prove, Maulny believes Israeli officials will attempt to shirk responsibility and point the blame at either NSO or the Moroccan government.
Rabat has denied using the software to eavesdrop on French officials.
“The problem first and foremost is one of regulating cybersecurity software products,” Maulny related. “Everyone is spying on everyone; the American government spied on [German Chancellor] Angela Merkel. These types of software need to be better regulated and monitored.”
Daniel Shek, a former Israeli ambassador to France, told The Media Line that while diplomatic ties have not been permanently damaged as a result of the Pegasus affair, France will certainly expect Israel to make assurances about future exports of cyber-weapon technologies.
“Israel should take a close look at the process and the procedure for approving such sales, be pickier about the end-users and be more diligent about safeguards,” Shek said.
“There are question marks but I haven’t seen anybody in France actually point the finger at Israel as a state,” he continued. “Having said that, they understand that there is a level of control and regulation that the Israeli authorities have or should have over the export and use of such technology.”
Overall, Shek does not believe that this affair will permanently damage relations between the two countries, which he says have historically had “outstanding ties” in a number of arenas, especially with regard to defense.
“I don’t think, for the moment, there is real damage to be feared,” he said.
Other foreign relations experts also argued that the affair underlines the pressing need to reexamine the issue of spyware technology exports.
“We just saw in this case how it has a huge potential to create a diplomatic crisis, and I think Israel has to be very cautious and treat this as a defense issue,” Dr. Emmanuel Navon, an international relations expert who teaches at Tel Aviv University, told The Media Line.
Navon further noted that Israel finds itself at a critical juncture with regard to a nuclear Iran, and as such ties with France are more critical than ever.
“Israel is seeking to have some kind of guarantees from France in case of a confrontation between Israel and Iran,” Navon said. “It’s critical to really rebuild this relationship.”