Israel's newspaper war gets nasty

A lot has been written about the "newspaper war" being waged in Canada. But cheap subscriptions and free boxes of cereal seem mighty tame compared to what's been happening in Israel.

In that part of the Middle East, the battle for readers includes everything from wiretaps and prison sentences to allegations of a murder plot.

Israeli newspapers are big, brassy, and successful. They enjoy leaks and inside contacts on a scale unknown in North America.

But just as in the West, power is concentrated in the hands of a few. Three families own practically all of the newspapers in Israel, and competition is fierce

Executives at Yedioth Ahronoth, Israel's biggest paper, and its rival Ma'ariv, were charged with planting wiretaps to spy on each other.

Ofer Nimrodi, the publisher of Ma'ariv, served four months in prison. He was released earlier this year, but the case keeps getting nastier.

Nimrodi is now being investigated for conspiracy to murder his competitors at Yedioth Ahronoth and Ha'aretz, as well as to kill a police witness.

And police say they're now getting a glimpse into just how far Nimrodi's influence might extend in the country.

Three senior Israeli policemen are now suspected of filling the publisher in on the investigation into his activities. One of them now works for him.

A senior cabinet minister says that, if the scandal turns out to be true, it is a black day for Israeli democracy.

Legislator Tamar Goransky agrees. She's introduced a bill to limit what she says is the uncontrolled power of rich criminals such as Nimrodi.

"Money, a lot of money, makes people feel they are running the world," Goransky says. "Israel is a little country, I mean it is not so difficult to run Israel."

Israeli TV recently aired a videotape of Nimrodi, head of a family worth about $150 million US, being interrogated by police.

At one point, the detective leaves the room, and Nimrodi, clearly unaware that he's being taped, helps himself to a document from his police file.

He gobbles it up and then, when the interrogator returns, washes the wad down with some water.

Nimrodi later explained the document he ate was of a personal nature, and that he didn't want anyone to see it.

He says he's being victimized by a vicious ex-employee who's telling the police lies. "It's only a sick imagination that can claim such things," he says.

And, of course, the whole sordid tale certainly sells a lot of newspapers.