WASHINGTON – When Israeli and Saudi officials publicly acknowledged their quiet thawing of relations in 2015, the U.S. and other Western allies were encouraged. Yes, the Middle East was unraveling elsewhere, but two longtime foes were making common cause against Iran.
This cold peace has its benefits. But in the last year, a darker side has come into focus.
Consider a Palestinian blogger and journalist named Iyad Al-Baghdadi, now living in exile in Norway. Last month he disclosed that Norwegian authorities informed him that he was a target of Saudi Arabia, which used a powerful Israeli-made cyberweapon to hack his phone. Al-Baghdadi worries that his life could be in danger from Saudi operatives.
I was in Oslo last week, and Al-Baghdadi told me something curious: When he was told he was a target of the Saudis, he felt a sense of relief. From his own research on how the Saudis hack their critics at home and abroad, he knew that he was a target. “What I didn’t know,” he said, “was whether the good guys understood this.” Now he knows they do.
And while there are certainly concerns for his personal safety — especially after a Saudi hit team murdered Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul last fall — Al-Baghdadi told me Saudi phone hacking need not end in murder for it to be sinister. “An invasion of privacy is also traumatic,” he said. “They are trying to defame you or get a sexual scandal or a financial scandal to blackmail you. Sometimes it’s just tracking your location to beat you up.”
The Saudis’ phone hacking is enabled by a privately owned Israeli company called the NSO Group Ltd. Its cyberweapon suite, Pegasus, has come under deserved scrutiny in the last year because governments have misused the weapon to hack the phones of journalists and human-rights activists. Last year, two groups of victims sued the company in Israel and Cyprus for providing phone surveillance to the Mexican and Emirati governments, which then used it against political targets.
Pegasus and similar hacking programs are now able to break into a phone without requiring the user to even click a link. In some cases, a bogus WhatsApp call is enough to infect the phone and make it a powerful tracking device. That makes it particularly suited to monitor Arab dissidents like Al-Baghdadi, who rely on the encrypted messaging service to make contact with networks of activists across the Middle East.
The NSO Group has said in public statements that its products should only be used for crime prevention and counterterrorism. That’s a fine sentiment, but with clients like Saudi Arabia, it’s also naive.
Saudi Arabia can afford spyware that is almost impossible to detect, said Danny O’Brien, the director of strategy at the Electronic Frontier Foundation. “If you sell a piece of equipment like this to a place like Saudi Arabia,” he told me, “it’s going to be used to target journalists, human rights activists and lawyers.”
And that brings things back to Al-Baghdadi. Perhaps a more enlightened man than Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman would recognize that Al-Baghdadi is not someone who should be subjected to the kind of sophisticated cyberweapons developed to counter espionage and terrorism. Since the dawn of the Arab Spring, Al-Baghdadi has been an equal-opportunity critic of Islamist totalitarian movements and the autocracies aligned against them. “They call me a Zionist agent or a Muslim Brotherhood sympathizer depending on what I am writing about,” he told me.
This also raises a question for the Israelis. The NSO Group needs a license to do business with Saudi Arabia. Providing the Saudis with Israeli cyberweapons is a foolish short-term bet, especially when the Saudis use them to target Arab liberals under the guise of fighting terrorism. It makes the Israelis partly responsible for the excesses of their new friend.
Israel’s sale of cyberweapons to Saudi Arabia undermines Middle Eastern security in a more intangible sense as well. The best way to fend off Islamist revolution is to build durable, open societies over time. This was the vision of former U.S. President George W. Bush and Israeli politician and former Soviet dissident Natan Sharanksy. It is also the vision of Al-Baghdadi. The Jewish state should use its power to protect him and others like him, instead of giving the Saudis the means to silence their voice.
Eli Lake is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering national security and foreign policy.