Bugs shake faith in Shin Bet

Ruthless business rivals find the skills of Israel's security service useful, writes Patrick Cockburn in Jerusalem
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Israel's internal security agency, Shin Bet, is at the centre of two wire-tapping scandals which are sending shock waves through the country's political and journalistic communities. They involve surveillance techniques, used against Palestinians and enemies of the state, that have been routinely employed by business and political competitors.

In the first case, Moshe Weinberg, an associate of the former Interior Minister and political king-maker Aryeh Deri, on trial for fraud and bribe- taking, was revealed this week to have told a police informer that he knew all about the police tapping his phone through friends in the Shin Bet.

What Mr Weinberg he did not know was that the informer, Ya'acov Shmuelevitz, was taping his boast and would play it this week before the Jerusalem court where Mr Deri is on trial. Asked how he knew his phone was tapped, Mr Weinberg said: "Very simple. Because [the requests for wiretaps] go through the GSS [Shin Bet], and we have connections with all kinds of people in the GSS."

The head of the Shin Bet denied the allegation. But on the Shmuelevitz tape, Mr Weinberg lists the number of bugs, where they are, telephone numbers and the names of those listening and even claims to have seen the police order to the Shin Bet to tap the phones.

Four members of the Knesset are demanding an inquiry into "a subversive link at the most sensitive junctions between the GSS or the police and suspected criminals under investigation."

There is more at stake here than the fate of Mr Deri. Despite being forced out of office by the indictment for fraud, the 35-year-old Moroccan-born politician remains the effective leader of the Orthodox Shas party, whose five members the Prime Minister, Yitzhak Rabin, feels he needs, to avoid relying on the votes of Israeli Arab members of the Knesset. Earlier this week Mr Rabin conferred with Mr Deri about a limited cabinet reshuffle, underlining the latter's genius for maximising the influence of Shas by threatening to withdraw its support from the government.

As Minister of the Interior, in control of much of the money the government gives to local institutions, Mr Deri is accused of funnelling money to Shas and its supporters. Press reports say he also bought four villas with government funds. In one of the 10 tapes made by the chief prosecution witness, Mr Shmuelevitz, a former private investigator, Mr Weinberg describes a trip he and Mr Deri took to England which cost about $10,000 (£6,200), the smallest sum Mr Weinberg spent being $500 he paid for Havana cigars for Mr Deri.

Wire-tapping is also at the centre of a second scandal, which has not yet come to trial, involving Ofer Nimrodi, editor-in-chief and publisher of Ma'ariv, a daily newspaper, in which eavesdroppers listened to some 200 media, business and political personalities as well as a telephone in the office of President Ezer Weizman. Since the extent of the bugging was revealed last May, police have launched an investigation which led to the arrest of David Ronen, the head of security at Ma'ariv and once a senior Shin Bet officer, on 7 February, as he arrived at Ben-Gurion airport from London.

Mr Ronen is suspected of illegal wire-tapping and disrupting the police investigation. But the motive behind the wire-tapping of so many people, some of whom worked for Ma'ariv, is still unclear. Bought a few years ago by Mr Nimrodi, son of Yacov Nimrodi, a multimillionaire who lives in a replica of the White House in Tel Aviv and who has old intelligence connections as Israel's former "Mr Fixit" in Iran, Ma'ariv has been fighting a ferocious war with the rival daily Yediot Ahronot. But commercial competition is clearly only one element in the case.

Until the Ma'ariv scandal, Israel had an easy-going attitude to wire- tapping. Advertisements for private investigators fill six and a half pages of the Tel Aviv yellow pages and leave no doubt about what services they provide.

Many investigators and company security men have backgrounds in state security. Rabbinical courts, which judge all divorce cases, accept wire- tap evidence. Investigators say businessmen routinely monitor competitors by bugging faxes. For the protagonists in the Deri and Ma'ariv scandals, recording the conversations of friends and enemies seems to have been an automatic precaution.