MBS called Netanyahu to renew KSA's NSO Pegasus spyware license: NYT
After the license for the NSO Pegasus Israeli-made spyware expired, Saudi crown prince Mohammad bin Salman offered to grant Israeli jets access through KSA's skies in exchange for the renewal.
According to The New York Times (NYT), Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman called former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu directly to request a renewal of the kingdom's expired license for NSO Group's Pegasus spyware in exchange for opening its airspace to Israeli flights.
The Israeli Security Ministry refused to renew Riyadh's license for the program after it expired, citing "Saudi Arabia's abuse of NSO's spyware," presumably referring to the case of Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi journalist who was reportedly spied using Pegasus in the lead up to his assassination in 2018.
NSO was unable to supply Saudi Arabia with routine software maintenance due to the lack of an Israeli export license, the report said, adding that its systems were crashing. NYT reported that numerous calls between the crown prince's aides, NSO executives, the Mossad, and the Israeli Security Ministry had failed to address the matter.
According to Israeli sources familiar with the call, the crown prince then made an urgent direct phone call to Netanyahu, requesting that the license be renewed. This call occurred before the normalization agreements between the Israeli occupation, UAE and Bahrain were signed in 2020.
For the first time ever, Israeli jets heading eastward on their route to the Gulf were allowed to use Saudi airspace as part of the arrangements.
According to the source, Netanyahu, who was uninformed of the license problems until his conversation with the crown prince, promptly instructed the Israeli Security Ministry to remedy the matter.
The same night, a ministry official called NSO's operations office and requested that the Saudi systems be turned back on. According to the NYT, the company's compliance officer on duty turned down the request and required a signed license.
The official told the NSO employee that orders came directly from Netanyahu. He then consented to accept an email from the government, and Pegasus spyware was up and running in Saudi Arabia again soon after.
According to the report, a Security Ministry courier handed a stamped and sealed permit to NSO headquarters the next morning.
The NYT article said that Pegasus was first sold to the kingdom in 2017 for a $55 million installation fee under the supervision of Prince Mohammad bin Salman.
Only a small group of top security officials, all reporting directly to Netanyahu, took part in the talks with the Saudis, all while taking "extreme measures of secrecy," according to one of the Israelis involved in the issue.
According to the report, keeping the Saudis happy was vital for Netanyahu.
Israeli PEGASUS Spying on Journalists, Activists Worldwide
Bahrain, Poland, UAE, South America, Hungary, Lebanon, and in many other locations, tens of thousands of activists, journalists, and politicians were listed as potential targets of the NSO Pegasus spyware.
According to an investigation led by The Washington Post and 16 media partners, military-grade spyware leased by the Israeli firm NSO Group to governments was used in attempted and successful hacks of 37 smartphones belonging to journalists, human rights activists, business executives, and the two women closest to the murdered Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
The US Commerce Department blacklisted Israeli firm NSO Group and Candiru in November for providing their spyware to foreign governments that used the tools to "maliciously target" journalists, embassy workers, activists, diplomats, and heads of state. Facebook and Apple have sued the company after the spyware was discovered on devices belonging to dissidents and journalists.