Opinion

Selling spyware is immoral, but selling weapons isn’t?

Concerns in France—and in Washington—about Israeli firm NSO Group are tainted with quite a bit of hypocrisy.

French President Emmanuel Macron in Jerusalem, Jan. 22, 2020. Photo by Hadas Parush/Flash90.
French President Emmanuel Macron in Jerusalem, Jan. 22, 2020. Photo by Hadas Parush/Flash90.
Eyal Zisser
Eyal Zisser is a lecturer in the Middle East History Department at Tel Aviv University.

French President Emmanuel Macron scolded Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett following a report that Moroccan intelligence services had used Israeli tech firm NSO Group’s Pegasus spyware to keep tabs on him and other senior officials in France.

The European Union also decried the report, calling the affair completely unacceptable. Several Democrat members of the U.S. Congress, meanwhile, compared the sale of the software to the sale of guns to the mafia, even going as far as saying the Israeli company should be blacklisted.

The Israeli software is now being linked to the assassination of Saudi journalist Jamaal Khashoggi at the Saudi Arabian embassy in Istanbul, as well as to the persecution of journalists, politicians and social activists in Hungary, the Persian Gulf and elsewhere.

Because NSO Group is an Israeli company that requires a special export license from the Israeli Defense Ministry, and due to claims that the Israeli government allowed and even promoted the sale of Pegasus and other software to a host of countries as part of its efforts to improve diplomatic ties with those states—the brunt of the criticism has been aimed at Israel rather than the company itself.

However, the concern in France, and in Washington incidentally, is tainted with quite a bit of hypocrisy. Espionage is a severe violation of personal privacy, but—and this is a big but—it doesn’t kill. On the other hand, weapons and other related systems certainly do kill, and these are sold by the French, and by the Americans, too, across the globe.

France, for example, is the third-largest weapons exporter in the world, after the United States and Russia. Over the past two years, the scope of its weapons exports has amounted to some two billion dollars. Israel’s weapons sales during that period came to an estimated $345 million, around 10 percent of France’s total. The United States is the leader in this market by a wide margin, with annual sales of around $10 billion.

Such activity isn’t considered a human rights violation and doesn’t entail spying on journalists and civilians; it merely involves weapons that are used to kill nameless, faceless human beings and is, therefore, somehow, far less troubling. We all recall France’s involvement in the construction of Iraq’s Osirak nuclear reactor some four decades ago. France provided the technology for the reactor and even promised to give the Iraqis the enriched uranium necessary to make it operational—all in exchange for Iraqi oil.

The reason for the anger at Israel is hard to gauge. Everyone sells weapons, everyone spies on everyone else. Perhaps they are mad because Israel has been able to join the “big boys club,” becoming a player in the fields of weapons and technology. Or maybe this is also an attempt to turn Israel into a punching bag for progressive forces around the world.

It would behoove Israel to tighten oversight over the weapons and cyber industries in the country, but they must also be bolstered as they have been the growth engine for the economy in recent years. In any case, the attempt to pin the world’s problems on weapons or technology produced in Israel is extremely hypocritical.

Eyal Zisser is a lecturer in the Middle East History Department at Tel Aviv University.

This article first appeared in Israel Hayom.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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