BENNY Gantz’s bid to become Israel’s Prime Minister is in crisis, after it emerged that his phone was hacked and the content passed to Iranians.
Benjamin Netanyahu responded to the revelation by mocking Gantz’s security credentials and saying that he does not have the mettle to lead Israel. He asked, “If Gantz could not protect his phone, how would he protect our country?”
Netanyahu has been sweating over recent weeks as Gantz steamed ahead in the polls. The former military chief of staff has a star line-up of other top-ranking defence officials, and has been challenging the PM’s longstanding image as Mr Security.
But the leak gave Netanyahu a major boost in his efforts to discredit Gantz and present himself as the only Iran-proof candidate. He reminded everyone that under his premiership Israel stole a huge consignment of documents from Iran. “Netanyahu hacked the Iranians and stole all of their information,” he tweeted. “The Iranians hacked Gantz and stole all of his information.”
Netanyahu supporters are presenting Gantz as weak in security terms – and also suggesting that the information obtained in the hack could make him a liability as PM.
Speculation is rife as to exactly what may have been on the phone. In a world that is still busy guessing whether Vladimir Putin has compromising information on Donald Trump and if so what it is, the discussion immediately turned to this concept.
The analysts went into a frenzy of speculation, raising the possibility that something compromising on the phone could allow Gantz to become subject to Iranian blackmail.
“There is a factor of uncertainty and if Netanyahu uses fear, as he knows to, this may be a problem,” Clila Magen, a crisis communications expert from Bar Ilan University, told The AJN.
“If we would know what’s on this phone exactly we could maybe move on but because of the uncertainty Netanyahu may be able to spread fear.”
Netanyahu is now focusing campaigning on Iran. He is claiming that Gantz is soft on Iran, failed to adequately oppose the West’s nuclear deal with Iran, and even that Tehran is gunning for a Gantz election win.
For the last decade, Netanyahu’s top message has been that Iran is the ultimate external threat. Now an opportunity has arisen, one that is seemingly beyond his wildest dreams, to discredit an Israeli rival by referring to Iran.
But Gantz’s Blue White party claims that the hacking episode actually discredits Netanyahu. It says that Netanyahu’s associates got hold of classified information about the hacking and leaked it to the press for political gain.
“To take classified materials from an Iranian cyberattack and use them against a political rival is crossing a red line,” said Blue White candidate Yoaz Hendel, a former Netanyahu aide.
The journalist behind the story, Amit Segal, insists his source had no connection to the PM. But Blue White has already written to Israel’s Attorney-General Avichai Mandelblit calling for an investigation and claiming that the leak “clearly” came from “someone who has access to sensitive defence information and possesses an interest in harming Gantz.”
Some former intelligence figures seem to agree. The former Mossad chief Tamir Pardo hinted that he believes the information was released by the Netanyahu campaign. “The use of classified intelligence for political purposes is very serious,” he said.
Pardo argued that the hacking is something of a non-story as anyone can be hacked. But he views the leak as a travesty – a “terrorist attack on the democratic process”.
Blue White strategists are trying to shift election talk away from the hacking scandal to … another scandal. One that Gantz calls the “most serious national security corruption scandal in the history of the country”.
For years, police have been probing whether corruption played a part in Israel’s 2016 purchase of submarines from the German shipbuilder ThyssenKrupp. It is suspected that several Israelis benefited from a graft scheme. Netanyahu has not been investigated in this case, though several close associates have.
This week, the case was back in the news, with a new development that Gantz says proves that Netanyahu “lied” on the issue of submarines.
Defence officials were unhappy that Egypt acquired similar ships to Israel’s. They wondered why Jerusalem had not used the unofficial veto that defence companies often allow, namely that they won’t sell equipment like Israel’s to nearby powers. Netanyahu has said that he tried to prevent Egyptian acquisitions. However, a report this week said that Netanyahu actually okayed them.
Gantz promised, if elected, to set up a national committee of inquiry “to investigate this affair and all those involved in it.” He said that the overall decision to buy the submarines is tainted with corruption, and that information was hidden from security chiefs of the time, him and his party colleagues included. Blue White claims that voters should already be turning away from Netanyahu based on the fact the attorney-general announced plans to indict him for corruption, and the submarine issue should provide a further push.
Gantz told journalists at a press conference: “Seated before you are three Chiefs of Staff and a Security Cabinet member from whom it was hidden that the Prime Minister was getting money. 16 million shekels. 16 million shekels that went into Netanyahu’s pocket. From a company that was directly connected to the submarines. It is a crisis of confidence in his leadership; it is a breakdown that cannot be repaired.”
Netanyahu hit back saying that Gantz is lying, insisting that he “did not get even a shekel from the submarine deal,” and saying that legal authorities have already reached this conclusion.
The latest opinion polling has Netanyahu’s Likud catching up with Gantz’s Blue White, which has been in the lead. Likud is now polling at 31 or 32 seats, a lead of one to three seats over Blue White. The margins are close, and the election could go either way. With both sides claiming the other is tainted, the final vote could come down to whose campaign to accuse opponents of scandal is most convincing to the public.