Pegasus Is Far Superior to Aladdin’s Lamp
Tool to hold on to undemocratic power
It would be wrong to compare apples and oranges, but if the wish is to hold onto power in undemocratic ways, Pegasus is far superior to Aladdin’s lamp.
The over 7,000 word investigation by Ronen Bergman and Mark Mazzetti for The New York Times magazine on January 29, beams searchlights on Sheikhs and dictators spying on human rights activists, journalists, dissidents and foreign missions. Among this galaxy of dictators are two nations which, atleast at the time of writing, are listed as the world’s oldest and the largest modern democracies – the US and India. The India angle is explored at length in Siddharth Vardarajan, interview in The Wire with Ronen Bergman, one of the NYT reporters who investigated Pegasus spygate.
The US has now blacklisted Pegasus and its owners, but only after the CIA gifted the spyware to the US puppets in Djibouti, known for human rights abuses. Who stops New Delhi from sharing the technology with friendly leaders outside India?
Pegasus is, by the NYT’s reckoning, the world’s most powerful cyber weapon, a premier spying tool owned by NSO. You would imagine, NSO is something akin to NSA. Nothing, of the sort. The name consists of the first letter of three names who own Pegasus.
For the buyer as well as the seller, Pegasus is a win-win several times over. Plus it is a multi-edged tool. Mexico was able to capture notorious drug gangster El Chapo, but the tool was also used against the opposition. Israel gained diplomatically: influencing Mexican and Panamanian vote at the UN in its favour.
In July 2017, Narendra Modi made the first ever visit to Israel by an Indian Prime Minister. Modi and Benjamin Netanyahu pranced about like old chums on the local beach. Never had Israel signed a bigger arms contract - $2 billion, which included the crown jewel, Pegasus, which could turn the nation’s smartphones into an “intelligence goldmine”.
The pert talking head who sought to connect Pegasus brought by the regime in 2017 with the record breaking election results in 2019, was singularly short on any proof. True, proof is not a commodity easily available when spy agencies are involved. Even so, the two plausible dates are just that – plausible, not factual.
Why was India burdened so much with gratitude for having been gifted Pegasus that it went out of its way to change its vote at the UN in 2019? It voted against a Palestinian human rights organization being given observer status. There are a host of other instances.
Pegasus to Poland was always a puzzling proposition because Poland beats Europe and the US, in the gory sport of rising anti-Semitism. One reason for anti-Semitism in Poland centers around property disputes between Poles and Jews. Powerful Jewish lobbies brought to bear pressure on Polish authorities to recover properties Jews had lost during the Nazi occupation of Poland. Polish anger simmered. A law was brought in to put an end to the transfer of properties claimed by Jews. Israel cried foul.
Transfer of Pegasus to a regime in Poland was a sort of carrot to tone down anti-Jewish sentiment. When the carrot did not work, the stick was brought out. Some years ago, Israeli Foreign Minister, Israel Katz turned up in Warsaw to attend an international conference. Provoked by heaven knows what, Kurtz rammed into the Poles for anti-Semitism. “Poles suckle anti-Semitism from their mother’s milk”, he thundered.
Experience with Viktor Orban of Hungary was better. A self-confessed “illiberal”, Orban put Pegasus to good use –– shackling his people, muzzling their voices. Israel reaped rewards as in the following instance.
When the EU foreign ministers tried to reach a consensus seeking a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas, something Israel was not terribly keen on, Orban came to Israel’s aid: Hungary refused to go along with 26 other nations. This was the spell Pegasus had cast on Europe’s most dictatorial regime.
These have been Pegasus’s peripheral uses compared to its ambition to transform the West Asian architecture, particularly the chunk involving Israel-GCC and Iran. First, the spyware made a strategic entry into UAE to placate Sheikh Mohammad bin Zayed who was so furious with Israel for having murdered, by poisoning a Hamas operative in 2010 in a Dubai hotel, that he severed relations with Israel. In 2013 Netanyahu offered him Pegasus on a silver salver. The magic worked. Relations were restored.
Since the founding of the Jewish state, the principal faultline dividing Israel and the Arabs has been the Palestinian issue. Dents did appear in the Arab line up as, for instance, when Anwar Sadat of Egypt visited Israel in 1977. But the role of Pegasus was considerable in altering the Arab-Israeli discourse altogether.
Arab-Israeli conflict focused on the Palestinian issue was gradually transformed into Sunni states confronting a Shia arc with Tehran at its center. Pleased as punch, the Israelis were totally on the side of the GCC. Each one of them had been gifted Pegasus to suppress dissent and people’s restiveness but to somehow remain in power, if only for Israel’s sake.
When Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman arrested and kept 381 of the Kingdom’s most important people, including 11 Princes in Riyadh’s Ritz Carlton hotel transformed into a prison, who knows how much of the certitude with which he took the gamble rested on the spyware’s snooping.
When MBS had journalist and Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi murdered and his body dismembered in Istanbul, there was a furore, worldwide. Pegasus was taken away from him. A distressed MBS ran to seek Netanyahu’s help. A British company, Novalpina, purchased shares of $1 billion from NSO and returned Pegasus to MBS on Netanyahu’s prodding.
Netanyahu was overjoyed because his secret diplomacy to sign the Abraham accords would turn to dross if MBS sulked out of what Netanyahu thought were epoch making accords. There is a limits to all power. Pegasus was no exception. Netanyahu, its principal peddler, is no longer Prime Minister of Israel.