The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Israel’s spat with Ben & Jerry’s overshadows its spyware scandal

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A week ago, a consortium of media outlets, including The Washington Post, started publishing details of a landmark investigation. Military-grade spyware leased by the NSO Group, a private Israeli cybersecurity firm, was used to hack the smartphones of prominent journalists, dissidents and activists — conflicting with the Pegasus spyware’s stated intended use for surveilling only terrorists and major criminals. The revelations offered a glimpse into the dark realm of state-sponsored cyber espionage and showcased the evolving risks to individuals’ privacy and civil liberties in the digital age. It also, implicitly, cast a spotlight on Israel, whose Defense Ministry had to sign off on the licensing of NSO’s Pegasus spyware to foreign governments.

But in the days that followed, discussion in the Israeli news cycle about the country’s shadowy tech exports was subsumed by a controversy over a foreign brand: Ben & Jerry’s ice cream. The iconic Vermont-based company issued a statement last Monday saying that it would no longer sell its ice cream in the “Occupied Palestinian Territory” — denoting, among other places, the West Bank, which is home to hundreds of thousands of settlers. Ben & Jerry’s, founded by two left-leaning Jewish Americans, has a long history of social justice activism, including supporting the Black Lives Matter protests in the United States last year. Its statement said that continuing sales in the disputed territory would be “inconsistent with our values.”

The gesture was a symbolic one, probably anchored in long-standing left-wing critiques of Israel’s continued military occupation of the West Bank and the expansion of Jewish settlements in areas where an independent Palestinian state is supposed to emerge under a two-state solution. Ben & Jerry’s also said it would “stay in Israel,” no matter its decision to restrict sales beyond the Green Line that demarcates Israel’s pre-1967 borders. But it still provoked a scathing backlash from Israel’s political leadership and close allies in the United States that shows no signs of abating a week later.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett declared that the company “has decided to brand itself as the anti-Israel ice cream.” President Isaac Herzog said the decision was “a new form of terror.” Foreign Minister Yair Lapid described the move as a “shameful surrender to antisemitism,” linking Ben & Jerry’s decision to the broader boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement aimed at isolating Israel on the world stage. Dozens of U.S. states have anti-BDS laws on their books that essentially link boycotts of Israel to hate speech, much to the ire of civil liberties groups. Some Israeli officials and U.S. politicians suggested that state governments use these regulations to punish the ice cream company.

Ironically, Ben & Jerry’s critics ended up being the ones calling for a boycott. The Israeli economic minister posted a video of herself throwing out a tub of the American ice cream. Former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu also jumped into the fray, tweeting that he would be avoiding Ben & Jerry’s in the future. In the United States, Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.) even urged his state’s government to “immediately block the sale” of Ben & Jerry’s flavors to Oklahomans.

The whole episode reveals a fundamental tension in Israel’s posture about its role in the Palestinian territories. On one hand, Israeli officials vehemently reject the charge that their government is perpetuating the crime of apartheid in the West Bank and East Jerusalem — where Palestinians are subordinate to Israeli security imperatives and denied the same political rights as their neighbors — by drawing a line between Israeli policies in the occupied territories and in Israel proper. Palestinians there are under the jurisdiction of the Palestinian Authority, a weak and unpopular institution that the Israelis claim is accountable for Palestinian grievances.

Yet when Ben & Jerry’s makes a business decision based on conditions specifically beyond the Green Line, it is read as an “anti-Israel” move writ large and even deemed antisemitic. This, some analysts argue, is untenable, and also illustrates the extent to which the Israeli establishment resists being held to account on the world stage.

“Ben & Jerry’s just did the same thing that Israel itself does, and even employed the exact same argument that Israel wields to fend off charges of apartheid — that there is a distinction between official Israeli territory inside the Green Line and disputed Israeli territory beyond the Green Line, and thus treating the territory and the people who live on it in different ways makes sense as a matter of policy,” wrote Michael Koplow of the Israel Policy Forum. “It is not credible to argue that the Green Line should exist when it is convenient and that it should be erased when it is convenient, and that it is outrageously anti-Israel, antisemitic, or even a form of terrorism to maintain the same distinction that Israel itself makes in all manner of ways.”

But that’s a line that many are peddling, including the top executive at the NSO Group. In an interview with right-wing daily Israel Hayom last week, NSO co-founder and CEO Shalev Hulio argued that the scrutiny of his company’s activities was part of a broader anti-Israel effort coordinated by foreign conspirators, be it “Qatar” or the BDS movement itself. “In the end it’s always the same entities,” he said. “I don’t want to sound cynical now, but there are those who don’t want [Israel] to import ice cream or export technologies.”

Speaking to my colleagues, Hulio said if the use of NSO’s technology in the alleged hacks was true, “it is something we will not stand as a company.” The Israeli government announced the appointment of a senior-level task force to investigate what happened with the Pegasus spyware, though it’s unclear whether its findings will lead to any real consequences. NSO has said it doesn’t operate the spyware licensed to clients and has “no insight” into their specific intelligence activities.

Free-speech and digital rights activists want to see a moratorium on the sale and transfer of spyware technology until a more transparent global regime to monitor these exports is in place. Israel’s booming tech sector could fall under particular scrutiny. “The country is home to NSO Group as well as other spyware companies, including Candiru, which Microsoft last week accused of selling tools to hack into Windows,” David Kaye and Marietje Schaake wrote in a Washington Post op-ed. “It is essential that Israel reins in its spyware sector and joins democratic nations in pushing back against the proliferation of technologies that operate like commercial intelligence services.”

To some advocates, it’s no coincidence that Israeli technology was deployed in countries with illiberal governments. “If Israel holds hundreds of Palestinians in administrative detention, without trial at all times, why would there be any outcry if new friends Saudi Arabia and Rwanda use an NSO system, born and bred in Israel, to incriminate opposition activists so they then rot in prison?” human rights lawyer Eitay Mack wrote in left-leaning Israeli daily Haaretz. (Some countries named in the investigation rejected allegations of the misuse of Pegasus spyware. Rwanda has denied use of the software, and Saudi Arabia has not responded with comment.)

“Israel excels in surveillance, because Israel does surveillance all day, every day, of Palestinians,” wrote Dahlia Scheindlin, a policy fellow at the Century Foundation. “The pioneers of cyber-technology are often graduates of military hi-tech surveillance units. NSO and the ice cream boycott are not strange bedfellows — they’re inseparable. Israel’s symbolic self-image as the earnest victim that can program its way out of politics is the real illusion.”

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