Israel company admits spying on Emir of Qatar

January 14, 2019

The CEO of Israeli spyware company NSO Group has admitted that its software was used to spy on the Emir of Qatar.

In an interview with Yedioth Ahronoth this weekend, Shalev Hulio admitted that his company’s product was used to spy on Emir Tamim Bin Hamad Al-Thani, as well as Qatari Foreign Minister Mohammed Bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani.

The interview disclosed that NSO’s “Pegasus” software – which can be used to remotely infect a target’s mobile phone and then relay back data accessed by the device – was used to intercept phone calls and text messages made by both the Qatari foreign minister and the Emir. These conversations reportedly concerned “hundreds of millions of dollars in ransom to Iran and Hezbollah for the release of several Qataris,” some of which was allegedly sent to the commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards’ Quds Force, Qasem Soleimani.

This spying was seemingly undertaken at the behest of the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Hulio revealed that the Israeli Defense Export Control Agency (DECA) authorized three deals with the UAE for the sale of NSO software, despite the fact that DECA is only supposed to give authorization for the “purpose of fighting terrorism and crime”.

These deals – allegedly mediated by former senior Israeli defense officials with close ties to a senior Emirati official – raised a total of $80 million in revenue for NSO.

NSO’s Pegasus software has come under increasing scrutiny in recent months after the product was revealed to be complicit in the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Though Hulio stressed in the interview with Yedioth Ahronoth this weekend that “Khashoggi was not targeted by any NSO product or technology, including listening, monitoring, location tracking and intelligence collection,” it appears that Saudi Arabia used NSO software to spy on many of Khashoggi’s friends and associates.

US whistle-blower Edward Snowden has been at the forefront of these claims, telling the Israeli newspaper: “I do not pretend that NSO is involved in hacking [directly] into Khashoggi’s phone, so their denial does not take us to a different conclusion. The evidence shows that the company’s products were involved in hacking into the phones of [Khashoggi’s] friends Omar Abdel Aziz, Yahya Assiri, and Ghanem Al-Masarir.”

The UAE is also known to have been using NSO’s software for some time. In 2016, Citizen Lab and Apple revealed there were attempts to infect an iPhone owned by the Emirati human rights activist Ahmed Mansoor. Mansoor had raised the alarm after receiving suspicious text intended to “bait to get him to click on a link, which would have led to the infection of his Apple iPhone 6 and control of the device through a spy software created by the NSO Group”.

Source: Middle East Monitor.

Link: https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/20190114-israeli-company-admits-spying-on-emir-of-qatar/.

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Italy’s far-right minister visits Israel, drawing criticism

December 12, 2018

JERUSALEM (AP) — One of Europe’s most divisive political figures, Italian Interior Minister Matteo Salvini, opened his visit to Israel Tuesday with warm words of support for his hosts, condemning Hezbollah as a “terrorist” organization and denouncing rising waves of anti-Semitism in Europe.

Salvini is in Israel for a two-day visit that has prompted criticism over his far-right policies and anti-migration views. He kicked off his trip with a tour of Israel’s northern border with Lebanon, where the Israeli army has uncovered tunnels it says were built by Hezbollah for attacks. He told a gathering of journalists in Jerusalem on Tuesday that no country would tolerate enemy tunnels infiltrating its territory.

“I call terrorists what they are, which is terrorists,” he said. He said he was “very proud” of the Italian soldiers serving in UNFIL, the U.N. peacekeeping force in Lebanon, which is headed by an Italian general.

Salvini, best known for bashing the European Union and cracking down on African and Arab asylum-seekers, said his government “fights anti-Semitism in every way and every form wherever it is.” He blamed Europe’s resurgent anti-Semitism on “immigration from Islamic countries.”

The leader of Italy’s populist League party, Salvini exploded onto the scene just months ago, but already exerts outsized influence on Italy’s prime minister and dominates the political conversation. Opinion polls show him surging in popularity as he stokes anti-immigrant anxiety and positions himself at the forefront of the nationalist movements sweeping Europe. In recent months, Salvini has made international headlines by tightening criteria for humanitarian protection and refusing to allow rescue boats packed with African migrants to dock at Italy’s ports.

Salvini is set to meet with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Wednesday and tour the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial. Pro-refugee activists rejecting his tough stance on migrants are expected to protest at the memorial during his visit.

Israeli President Reuven Rivlin turned down a meeting with Salvini, his office said, citing a full schedule and declining further comment. Opposition lawmakers have praised Rivlin’s decision, interpreting it as a rebuke of Salvini’s views.

Salvini brushed off the backlash Tuesday, saying, “I smile when I hear criticism from the left in Italy and in Israel,” and that whoever is bothered by his visit “will have to get over it.” Salvini’s remarks frequently drawn outrage from the Italian Jewish community. The president of Italy’s Union of Jewish Communities, Noemi Di Segni, criticized the minister’s move to abolish an anti-racism law last summer, expressing concern at the government’s “radicalization.” The Jewish Union has also slammed Salvini over his announcement that he would conduct a census of Roma in Italy, saying he was awakening memories of racial hatred and fascist tendencies during World War II.

Emmanuel Navon, senior fellow at the Jerusalem Institute for Strategic Studies, said Israel’s embrace of Salvini and “rebellious European governments” allows it to gain leverage over Western European powers, which have traditionally sympathized with the Palestinians, pressed for renewed peace talks and sought to block recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital in the European Union.

“Israel needs to take advantage of this big divide in Europe right now,” Navon said. “People are uncomfortable with it, but this is in Israel’s national interest.” Netanyahu has recently welcomed a string of contentious nationalist leaders to Israel, including Hungary’s authoritarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, whose past remarks have been interpreted as anti-Semitic, and Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, widely accused of committing human rights abuses. Netanyahu has also promised to participate in the swearing-in ceremony of hard-right Brazilian president-elect Jair Bolsonaro.

Israel protests Jordanian minister’s walk over its flag

Monday 31/12/2018

JERUSALEM/AMMAN – Israel protested to Jordan on Sunday after the spokeswoman for the government in Amman was photographed stepping on the Israeli flag during a meeting with trade unionists.

Jumana Ghunaimat, Jordan’s minister for media affairs and communications and the government spokeswoman, on Thursday walked over an Israeli flag painted on the floor of the headquarters of Jordan’s professional unions in Amman.

She was on her way to attend a meeting between Jordanian Prime Minister Omar al Razzaz and union representatives. Razzaz, however, entered the building through a rear door, avoiding having to walk over the flag.

Israel’s Foreign Ministry issued a statement on Sunday deploring the flag “desecration”, and said it had summoned acting Jordanian ambassador Mohammed Hmaid for a reprimand and that the Israeli embassy in Amman had also issued a “sharp protest”.

The flag was painted on the floor of the building several years ago to encourage passers by to tread on it, a mark of disrespect, unions said at the time.

Despite the neighbours’ 1994 peace deal and commercial and security ties, many Jordanians resent Israel and identify with the Palestinian struggle against it.

Jordan’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Majed al-Qatarneh confirmed in a statement issued via state media that the Israeli embassy in Amman had asked for clarifications over the incident and that Israel had called in the Jordanian charge d’affaires in Tel Aviv to “discuss” the matter.

Qatarneh said that Jordan respects its peace treaty with Israel and that Ghunaimat had entered a private building by its main entrance to attend an official meeting.

The flag had been painted at a time when the unions were controlled by Jordan’s mainly Islamist opposition, fierce ideological foes of Israel. They have since lost influence and Jordan’s professional unions are mostly now run by nationalist and secular parties that avoid party activism.

Still, some union members were unhappy that union leaders had allowed Razzaz to avoid the flag.

“The unions took a cowardly stance by allowing the prime minister to enter from a back door and his aides no doubt told him of the presence of the flag at the entrance,” Masira Malaas, a leading union activist, said.

Source: Middle East Online.

Link: https://middle-east-online.com/en/israel-protests-jordanian-minister%E2%80%99s-walk-over-its-flag%C2%A0.

Russian and Turkish ministers meet for Syria talks

December 29, 2018

MOSCOW (AP) — Russian and Turkish foreign and defense ministers met in Moscow on Saturday to discuss northern Syria as U.S. forces prepare to withdraw and Turkey threatens to launch a military operation against U.S.-backed Kurdish forces controlling nearly a third of the country.

Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said before the talks began that they would focus on the situation in and around Idlib, as well as “what can and should be done” when the U.S. withdraws from Syria.

After the meeting, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told reporters that much of the discussion focused on the pending U.S. withdrawal, and that Russia and Turkey managed to agree on coordinating their steps in Syria “to ultimately eradicate the terrorist threat.”

Turkey’s official Anadolu news agency said the meeting lasted an hour and a half. Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said only that “we will continue our close cooperation with Russia and Iran on Syria and regional issues.”

The Syrian military said it entered the Kurdish stronghold of Manbij on Friday as part of an apparent agreement between the two sides. The Kurds are looking for new allies to protect against a threatened Turkish offensive as U.S. forces prepare to leave.

With President Donald Trump’s surprise decision to withdraw troops earlier this month, Turkey announced it will pause a threatened offensive against Kurdish militants. It has, however, continued amassing troops at the border as it monitors the situation.

The movements follow days of equipment transfers across the border into a Turkish-held area of northern Syria near Manbij. Turkish-backed Syrian opposition fighters said they have started moving along with Turkish troops to front-line positions near the town as a show of readiness.

A statement released by the rebels said they are ready to “begin military operations to liberate the city in response to calls by our people in the city of Manbij.” Turkish news agency IHA showed video of at least 50 tanks arriving at a command post in Sanliurfa province early Saturday. The province borders Kurdish-held areas east of the Euphrates river in Syria.

The Russian side was represented in Saturday’s talks by Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, Defense Minister Shoigu, and Kremlin foreign affairs aide Yuri Ushakov. The Turkish delegation includes Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu, presidential spokesman Ibrahim Kalin, intelligence chief Hakan Fidan and Defense Minister Hulusi Akar.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters in Moscow on Saturday that, in addition to the foreign and defense ministers of each country, the meeting was attended by intelligence chiefs from both sides.

Presidents Vladimir Putin and Recep Erdogan did not attend the meeting. Peskov said the two would later schedule a separate meeting.

Bilginsoy reported from Istanbul. Associated Press writer Bassem Mroue contributed from Beirut.

Pentagon withdrawing all U.S. forces from Syria

DEC. 19, 2018

By Clyde Hughes and Danielle Haynes

Dec. 19 (UPI) — The U.S. military is preparing for a full withdrawal from Syria, in a move that will pull about 2,000 service members from the country and signal a major Middle East policy shift.

U.S. troops have been training local forces to combat Islamic State militants in Syria, also known by the acronyms ISIS and ISIL. The withdrawal will be “full” and “rapid,” CNN reported.

White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders acknowledged the pullout in a statement Wednesday.

“Five years ago, ISIS was a very powerful and dangerous force in the Middle East, and now the United States has defeated the territorial caliphate,” she said. “These victories over ISIS in Syria do not signal the end of the Global Coalition or its campaign.

“We have started returning United States troops home as we transition to the next phase of this campaign. The United States and our allies stand ready to re-engage at all levels to defend American interests whenever necessary, and we will continue to work together to deny radical Islamist terrorists’ territory, funding, support, and any means of infiltrating our borders.”

Partners in northeast Syria have been told of the withdrawal, a senior administration official told reporters. The Pentagon, though, will maintain about 5,000 troops in neighboring Iraq and the ability to launch attacks into Syria, if needed. The Syrian government has long called for U.S. forces to leave the country.

The official said about 1 percent of the Islamic State remains active in Syria, a figure the United States believes can be eliminated by regional partners.

“We are under no illusions that ISIS at large or the scourge of Sunni tyranny has gone away,” the administration official said.

The official offered no timeline for how quickly troops will be removed from Syria or how many have already left.

The announcement appeared to indicate a sudden shift in U.S. policy toward the Middle East. Earlier this month, the U.S.-led coalition said there were no plans for a change.

“Any reports indicating a change in the U.S. position with respect is false and designed to sow confusion and chaos,” the coalition said in a statement.

News of a U.S. pullout comes a day after Russia, Iran and Turkey agreed that a panel to draw up a new Syrian Constitution will meet next month.

Diplomats from the three countries agreed at the end of a meeting in Switzerland on Tuesday the 150-body committee will convene for the first time in January.

“We have agreed to take efforts aimed at convening the first session of the Syrian constitution committee early next year,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said in a statement after the meeting.

“These steps will lead to the launch of a viable and lasting Syrian-owned, Syrian-led, U.N.-facilitated political process.”

The three nations, which support the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, failed to agree on the makeup of the committee, however.

The body was expected to have 50 representatives from the Syrian government, 50 representatives from the opposition, and 50 “independent” delegates picked by the United Nations. The Syrian government, though, pushed back on the independent candidates’ portion and objected outright to some of the U.N. delegates.

The creation of a new Constitution for Syria is at the center of the country’s seven-year civil war and a political struggle by Assad. The United States has rejected any proposed peace deal that leaves him in power.

Assad said a new Syrian Constitution is not needed and the existing law only needs tweaking, The New Arab reported. The United Nations and United States believe a new Constitution is needed to guarantee free elections.

Syria’s civil war has lasted for seven years and has killed more than 500,000 people. Millions more have fled their homes in the war-ravaged country.

“Slowly, we are reaching a conclusion,” Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said. “We have reached an important step in our work toward the Syrian constitutional committee.”

Source: United Press International (UPI).

Link: https://www.upi.com/Top_News/US/2018/12/19/Pentagon-withdrawing-all-US-forces-from-Syria/6051545224890/.

Popular former military chief jumps into politics in Israel

December 27, 2018

JERUSALEM (AP) — A popular former Israeli military chief jumped into the political fray Thursday, announcing he would run for office in the upcoming election and instantly injecting a potent challenge to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s lengthy rule.

Retired Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz has been polling favorably in recent weeks, emerging as a fresh, exciting face in Israel’s staid political landscape. By officially registering his new party, “Israel Resilience,” Gantz shakes up a snap three-month election campaign that has been widely seen as Netanyahu’s to lose.

Even before officially announcing his candidacy, several polls showed Gantz’s hypothetical party coming in second only to Netanyahu’s ruling Likud in a crowded field of contenders in the April 9 vote. A second-place finish would position Gantz for either a top Cabinet post in a Netanyahu government or to be a high-profile opposition leader.

Gantz has yet to comment publicly on the new party. Though he has yet to lay out his worldview or political platform, he flaunts stellar military credentials — a must in security-centric Israel — and a squeaky-clean image to contrast Netanyahu’s corruption-laden reputation.

Although still short of the kind of widespread support likely needed to become prime minister, Gantz’s candidacy captures a yearning in Israel for a viable alternative to emerge against the long-serving Netanyahu, who has been in office for nearly a decade and is seeking a fourth consecutive term.

With a commanding lead in the polls, and a potential indictment looming against him, Netanyahu called early elections this week, seeking to pre-empt possible corruption charges and return to office to become the longest serving premier in Israeli history.

Police have recommended charging Netanyahu with bribery and breach of trust in three different cases. Netanyahu has denied any wrongdoing, dismissing the allegations as a media-orchestrated witch hunt aimed at removing him from office.

Israel’s attorney general is now weighing whether to file criminal charges. Analysts say that Netanyahu hopes to win re-election before a decision is made, believing it would be much more difficult for the attorney general to charge a popular, newly elected leader.

Even with Netanyahu’s legal woes, he remains popular in opinion polls, while Israel’s established opposition remains splintered and unable to produce a viable challenger. Like most retired security officials, Gantz is believed to hold moderate positions toward the Palestinians, which would set him apart from Netanyahu, who has largely ignored the issue while focusing on Iran’s influence in the region. But Gantz has been cagey about voicing his opinions, wary of alienating conservative voters crucial for a political upheaval.

Early opinion polls indicate that Gantz would take away votes from all the major parties and may not tip the scales away from Netanyahu just yet. But the emergence of the tall, telegenic ex-general with salty hair makes things more interesting, as he could spark new alliances with other moderate parties to give the hard-line Likud an honest fight.

“It’s too early to tell, but he definitely strengthens the center-left camp,” said Mina Tzemach, a leading Israeli pollster, whose most recent survey gave Gantz’s new party as many as 16 seats in the 120-seat Parliament. “He projects security and integrity. And the fact that he looks good doesn’t hurt either.”

Gantz, 59, was a paratrooper who rose up the ranks to head special operations units and other various commands before serving as military attache to the United States and ultimately becoming Israel’s 20th military chief between 2011-2015. His term was marked by two wars with Hamas militants in Gaza and a covert air campaign in Syria against Iranian arms shipments to Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon.

Since his discharge, he has been aggressively courted by several Israeli political parties, but ultimately decided to go it alone for now as the leader of his own party. Despite his impressive pedigree, Gantz remains a political unknown, which explains part of his appeal in such a highly partisan climate.

“There seems to be about 20 percent of the public that is fed up with what’s out there. He appeals to those who don’t want Netanyahu but can’t bring themselves to vote for the others either,” said Reuven Hazan, a political science professor at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University. “He’s the flavor of the election.”

Israel is no stranger to such would-be saviors. In the 2013 elections, former TV anchor Yair Lapid came out of nowhere with his centrist Yesh Atid party to capture 19 seats and become Israel’s second-largest faction. Last time, in 2015, Moshe Kahlon’s economy-focused Kulanu became the unlikely kingmaker. Both, however, decided to join Netanyahu’s coalition rather than oppose him and their years in the system have taken off some of the shine since then.

Polls currently reflect a dichotomy in which most Israelis don’t want Netanyahu to continue to be their prime minister while simultaneously saying they see no preferred candidate to replace him. To finally topple Netanyahu, Gantz will likely have to team up with a combination of Lapid, Kahlon, the venerable Labor Party and others. Opposition leader Tzipi Livni has called on the various candidates to “put their egos aside” and unite against Netanyahu.

Netanyahu takes on defense post amid call for early polls

November 18, 2018

TEL AVIV, Israel (AP) — Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Sunday he would take on the defense minister portfolio, rejecting calls to dissolve his government even as early elections appeared increasingly likely.

Netanyahu said heading to elections now, amid repeated violent confrontations with Gaza militants, was “irresponsible” of his coalition partners, who have been pushing for early polls since the resignation last week of Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman over a Gaza cease-fire.

“Today, I take on for the first time the position of defense minister,” said Netanyahu, speaking from Israel’s defense headquarters in Tel Aviv in a statement broadcast live at the top of the evening newscasts.

“We are in one of the most complex security situations and during a period like this, you don’t topple a government. During a period like this you don’t go to elections,” he said. The sudden coalition crisis was sparked by the resignation of the hawkish Lieberman, who had demanded a far stronger response last week to the most massive wave of rocket attacks on Israel since the 2014 Israel-Hamas war. He alleges the cease-fire agreement reached with Gaza’s Hamas rulers will put southern Israel under a growing threat from the group, similar to that posed to northern Israel by Lebanon’s heavily armed Hezbollah group.

The departure of Lieberman and his Yisrael Beitenu party leaves the coalition with a one-seat majority in the 120-member parliament. Netanyahu’s other partners say that makes governing untenable and would leave the coalition susceptible to the extortion of any single lawmaker until elections scheduled for November 2019.

Education Minister Naftali Bennett, of the pro-settler Jewish Home party, has already threatened to bring down the government if he is not appointed defense minister. He and Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, also of Jewish Home, are set to deliver a statement to the media Monday. If the party leaves the coalition, it would strip Netanyahu of his parliamentary majority.

Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon, another senior partner, says another year of such instability will harm the economy. A meeting between him and Netanyahu Sunday meant to convince Kahlon to stay ended with no results.

Netanyahu’s Likud allies are already preparing to pin the blame on coalition partners if the effort to salvage the government fails. “I think that there is no reason to shorten the term of a national government, not even for one day, and at this moment it’s in the hands of the education minister and the finance minister,” said Gilad Erdan, the minister of public security.

No Israeli government has served out its full term since 1988. Since then, elections have almost always been moved up because of a coalition crisis or a strategic move by the prime minister to maximize his chances of re-election.

Though Netanyahu has been reportedly flirting with the idea of moving up elections himself in recent months, the current timing is not ideal for him. He has come under heavy criticism for agreeing to the Gaza cease-fire, especially from within his own political base and in the working-class, rocket-battered towns in southern Israel that are typically strongholds of his Likud Party. But with Lieberman forcing his hand and the other coalition partners appearing eager to head to the polls he may not have a choice.

Most opinion polls show Netanyahu easily securing re-election, which would secure him a place in Israeli history as the country’s longest serving leader. But several factors could trip him up, including a potential corruption indictment that could knock him out of contention.

Police have recommended he be indicted on bribery and breach of trust charges in two cases and have questioned him at length on another. The country has long been eagerly awaiting the attorney general’s decision on whether to press charges.

Netanyahu has angrily dismissed the accusations against him, characterizing them as part of a media-driven witch-hunt that is obsessed with removing him from office.

Associated Press writer Aron Heller in Jerusalem contributed to this report.

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