The editors of Israel's two largest newspapers were in police custody yesterday accused of wire-tapping each other - along with over 200 journalists, businessmen and politicians. Ofer Nimrodi, editor and publisher of the daily Ma'ariv, is also alleged to have paid thousands of dollars a month to two private investigators involved in the bugging to prevent them co- operating with the police.
It is the decision one of these investigators, Ya'acov Tsur, to turn state's evidence that has led to the rash of arrests of senior figures at Ma'ariv. Police had hoped to wait another three weeks before making arrests, but a tip-off that Mr Nimrodi was about to fly to Zurich led to his arrest at Ben Gurion airport last Saturday.
Police followed this up by raiding Ma'ariv's arch-rival, Yediot Aharanot, on Monday and taking away the publisher, Arnon (Noni) Mozes, and the editor- in-chief, Moshe Vardi. The scandal is shaking the journalistic and political establishment here because much of the highly-concentrated Israeli media, including television and magazines, is owned by Mr Nimrodi and Mr Mozes.
Amos Schoken, the third of Israel's media barons and owner of Ha'aretz, the most prestigious of Israeli newspapers, said: "There are grave suspicions that criminal elements have taken over an important newspaper in Israel." He was apparently referring to Ofer Nimrodi, whose father, Ya'acov, made his money through the supply of arms to the Shah of Iran and was later involved in the Iran-Contra affair. "Journalism has fallen into disgrace," said Dov Yudkovsky, a former editor of Yediot Aharanot, yesterday. "Instead of carrying out investigative journalism, it has turned into the one being investigated."
Ma'ariv was bought from its previous owner, Robert Maxwell, three years ago by Ya'acov Nimrodi. He said his son Ofer had always wanted to own a newspaper, so "I bought him one when he came back from Harvard".
The scandal also underlines the extent to which the culture of the external intelligence service, Mossad, and the internal security Shin Beth, former officers of which are routinely employed by Israeli companies, has affected Israeli business. Advertisements for private detectives - many offering wire-tapping services - cover 10 pages in the Tel Aviv yellow pages. Mr Tsur, who will receive immunity, as well as a large reward for becoming a prosecution witness, had invented a computer program for bugging faxes, and used a $100,000 machine for tapping cellular phones.
Police found the evidence of wiretapping in April last year when a bug was discovered in the office of a Yediot Aharanot director. It appears the initial motive for the wire taps was a circulation war raging between the newspaper and Ma'ariv, but this does not explain why the bugging stretched into the offices of the Israeli President and the security services themselves. A possible additional motive is that the press barons needed political leverage to extend their television and cable empires, which compete with state-backed television.