After being widely condemned by the international community for allowing Pegasus, which the NYT once described as “the world’s most powerful cyberweapon”, to be sold to every African despot and authoritarian government with the means to pay for it, the Israeli government apparently drew the line at sharing the powerful hacking tool with the governments of Ukraine and Estonia, for fear they would use it against Russia.
For those who aren’t familiar with Pegasus, the software was developed by secretive Israeli spyware company NSO Group, which found itself on the receiving end of international condemnation after it was revealed that the spyware had been used by the Saudi government to spy on Amazon chief Jeff Bezos (and murdered dissident Jamal Khashoggi). More recently, the Israeli government was accused of using the spyware to carry out warrantless surveillance of its own citizens.
According to the NYT, Ukraine and Estonia had hoped to buy Pegasus in the hopes of using it to infiltrate Russian phones, but Israel’s ministry of defense refused to grant the licenses required for the sale.
Ukraine had been pushing to obtain Pegasus for espionage purposes since as far back as 2014, while the Estonians started the process of trying to purchase it in 2018, going so far as to make a large down payment to NSO, which was eventually returned after the Russian government learned of Estonia’s plans and contacted the Israeli’s to put a stop to it.
In the case of Ukraine, the requests for Pegasus go back several years. Since the Russian invasion of Crimea in 2014, the country has increasingly seen itself as a direct target of Russian aggression and espionage. Ukrainian officials have sought Israeli defense equipment to counter the Russian threat, but Israel has imposed a near-total embargo on selling weapons, including Pegasus, to Ukraine.
In the Estonian case, negotiations to purchase Pegasus began in 2018, and Israel at first authorized Estonia to have the system, apparently unaware that Estonia planned to use the system to attack Russian phones. The Estonian government made a large down payment on the $30 million it had pledged for the system.
The following year, however, a senior Russian defense official contacted Israel security agencies to notify them that Russia had learned of Estonia’s plans to use Pegasus against Russia. After a fierce debate among Israeli officials, Israel’s Ministry of Defense blocked Estonia from using the spyware on any Russian mobile numbers worldwide.
During a recent speech to the Knesset, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky criticized Israel for refusing to provide Ukraine with the Israeli Iron Dome antimissile system and other defensive weapons, and for not joining the West in imposing strict economic sanctions on Russia.
Israel has used Pegasus as a critical bargaining chip in its diplomatic relations with other nations; it has been reported that sharing the spyware tool was an important piece of the bargaining that led to the Abraham Accords, the landmark Israeli deal with several of its Middle Eastern neighbors brokered by President Trump and his administration.
As a spyware tool, Pegasus is incredibly powerful. Once a device is targeted, the software can stealthily and remotely extract everything stored on the device, including photos, contacts, messages and video recordings, without the user having to click on a phishing link to give Pegasus remote access. It can also transform the mobile phone into a tracking and secret recording device, essentially transforming a phone into a tool to spy on its owner.