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MBS personally called Netanyahu to intervene after Israel blocked Saudi access to a military-grade spyware program, report says

A composite image showing former Israeli leader Benjamin Netanyahu (L) and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (R.)

Getty/Hasan Bratic/picture alliance via Getty Images

  • Pegasus is a powerful software from NSO Group that lets governments surveil electronics.
  • Israel’s defense ministry stopped Saudi Arabia from using Pegasus in 2020, NYT Magazine said.
  • So MBS personally called Netanyahu and told him he needed to intervene, the magazine said. 

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman personally called Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to intervene after his country blocked Saudi Arabia from accessing the powerful, Israeli-made Pegasus spyware, The New York Times Magazine reported.

Pegasus, a tool made by Israel’s NSO Group for governments to spy on the electronics of terrorists and criminals, has also been used by governments including Saudi Arabia to spy on activists, state critics, and foreign officials.

In October 2020, the Israeli defense ministry declined to renew NSO’s export license to a Saudi security agency, citing Riyadh’s past abuse of Pegasus, the magazine said.

The lack of a new license meant that NSO could not update the Pegasus software for the Saudis, and it started crashing, the report said.

This prompted Crown Prince Mohammed to call Netanyahu, the magazine reported.

After the call, Netanyahu ordered the defense ministry to solve the issue and a new export license was granted within hours, giving Saudi authorities full use of Pegasus, the report said.

NSO, the Royal Embassy of Saudi Arabia in Washington, DC, and the Israeli defense ministry did not immediately respond to Insider’s request for comment.

NSO first welcomed Saudi Arabia as a client in 2017 but canceled the contract in late 2018 after the Washington Post writer Jamal Khashoggi was found to be murdered by Saudi state security agents.

The Post reported that the phone of Hatice Cengiz, Khashoggi’s wife, was infected with the Pegasus software.

Despite this, Saudi Arabia’s access to Pegasus was restored by NSO in early 2019, the magazine said. 

In November, the US added NSO to a banned-entity list, preventing American companies from engaging with NSO.

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