Head of the Blue and White (Kahol Lavan) party and de facto leader of Israel’s opposition, Benny Gantz, has had his mobile phone hacked by apparent Russian attackers just weeks before Israel’s upcoming general election, which is slated for 17 September.
Israel’s Channel 12 yesterday reported that an “intense and unusual” cyberattack had taken place against the Blue and White party, which had delivered the contents of Gantz’s personal phone to what it claimed to be Russian hackers.
Gantz’s chief of staff Hod Betzer, campaign manager Ido Har-Tov and campaign adviser Ronen Moshe were also thought to have been hacked, though the TV channel did not explain how the attack had been traced to Russia.
Channel 12 cited a report from CGI Group, a business intelligence firm hired earlier this month by Gantz to find a party mole who was leaking information to the Israeli press. CGI claimed the cyberattack was of “a type we have never before encountered”, recommending that Blue and White file a police complaint.
The party has been quick to refute these reports, with a Kahol Lavan official telling Israeli business news website Globes last night that “the [CGI] report raised the suspicion that there was an attempt to obtain information [via the purported Russian hack], but that turned out to be an utter and complete lie.”
Blue and White also claimed that CGI’s CEO, Zvika Nave, leaked the report to Channel 12 in order to pressure the party to pay its bill, which was “estimated by the TV station at between 100,000 and 500,000 shekels ($28,000-$142,000),” the Times of Israel reported.
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CGI has since denied this claim, accusing the party of “shooting the messenger” and stressing that the firm was not responsible for leaking the report.
For its part, Russia has vehemently denied involvement in the apparent attack, with spokesperson for Russia’s embassy in Tel Aviv, Alexander Gavrilov, saying that “the embassy does not respond to fake news”.
Blue and White number three, Moshe Ya’alon, also denied that the attack was perpetrated by Russia, saying: “It’s not Russians; the Russians are not interested in us. Our opponents are [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu and his people. He is using means that are not legitimate. He is fighting for his life and trying to avoid the law and there are those who will lose a lot of money if he loses.”
Netanyahu’s Likud party reacted with anger to Ya’alon’s accusations, calling on him to apologise for making false accusations.
The incident and the political wrangling that has followed bear striking similarity to the run up to Israel’s 9 April election, when Israel’s intelligence agency Shin Bet admitted that an Iranian intelligence firm had hacked Gantz’s phone, accessing personal data and sensitive information.
Questions over the timing of the hack quickly added to speculation surrounding the affair, with Gantz even forced to deny that sex tapes had been stolen from his phone.
Netanyahu was quick to use the affair to his advantage, claiming Gantz was vulnerable to blackmail and extortion by Iran and that he was, therefore, unfit to be prime minister. Netanyahu even went so far as to say that Gantz was Iran’s preferred candidate in the April election, Likud issuing a campaign video which claimed that “the Iranian regime openly supports” Gantz.
At the time, Blue and White issued a statement claiming that “the timing of the leak wasn’t coincidental” given that “Gantz [was] the leading candidate to be Israel’s prime minister”. The statement added that briefings to the media by Netanyahu’s associates “prove[d] beyond a doubt who [was] behind this story and why”.
Blue and White even called on Israel’s Attorney General, Avichai Mandelblit, to investigate whether Netanyahu’s office had a hand in leaking the information to the press in a bid to damage his main political rival.
Gantz remains Netanyahu’s major opponent in next month’s election, with the pair polling neck-and-neck with little over two weeks to go until election day on 17 September.