JERUSALEM -- For years it has been the most popular secret weapon in Israel for flushing out secrets, whether the target has been a business competitor or an enemy spouse in a nasty divorce.
Good old wiretapping. Widely practiced, even if illegal. Call your neighborhood private detective for details.
So it was that few Israelis were surprised in April when someone was caught eavesdropping on the phones of executives at the country's two biggest newspapers. Just another case of Spy vs. Spy between cutthroat competitors, everyone assumed. A few small fines would be imposed, as usual, and that would be that.
Then it emerged in May that the eavesdroppers had also listened to conversations from more than 200 other phones, including ones in the offices of President Ezer Weizman, the state comptroller, two members of Parliament, the central offices of two banks and a former employee of Israel's intelligence agency.
Some Israelis began wondering if maybe things had gotten out of hand.
The result is that in recent weeks lawmakers have proposed stiffer penalties for wiretapping, and some legal experts now sense a shifting mood in a society that only recently put a value on the right to privacy.
"One can see a change in the attitude," says Alex Stein, senior lecturer in the law faculty at the Hebrew University. "Obviously an anxiety has surfaced, and people now want to be protected against this. I believe punishment will become more and more severe."
The mystery is why it took so long.
"Until this recent scandal, tapping was very prevalent," says Sam Guzman, director of the Gil Detective Agency in Tel Aviv.
In the business world, he says, "Anyone who wanted to get information about a competitor tried to tap a fax or a phone. The big businesses want to keep an eye on the little ones, and vice versa, and from the client's point of view the easiest way to track a competitor is by getting hold of its faxes. Even respectable companies do it."
Then there's divorce, which can make business competition seem like a gentlemanly afternoon of croquet. Mr. Guzman recalls one of his favorite cases:
"I was once asked by a wealthy lady to check if her phones were tapped. I went over to her house and discovered a tap on one of the lines. I asked her who she suspected of placing the tap and she replied that it was probably her husband. She proceeded to confide that she had a lover and that her marriage was not very good."
Mr. Guzman decided on a novel counterattack. "Instead of removing the tap . . . I advised her to keep the tap in place and engage in disinformation. I told her to place calls to friends and say how much she loved her husband.
"She did what I told her and filed for divorce a few months later, without her husband having anything on her."
But surely, wouldn't wiretapping be frowned on by the rabbinical courts, where Israel's divorce cases are judged?
"The Rabbinate is willing to accept evidence acquired through illegal tapping, and this certainly encourages the phenomenon," Mr. Guzman says. "We [detectives] don't encourage this."
Mr. Guzman insists that his firm does only anti-tapping work.
That's what most detective agencies say, although it doesn't take much imagination to read between the lines of their advertisements, which fill seven and a half pages of the Tel Aviv yellow pages.
The half-page spread for A. A. Barak Investigation Services is typical, reading, "A reliable office specializing for 27 years in: personal investigation (divorce), economic investigation, polygraph, exposing theft and industrial espionage, exposing phone tapping, and security. We use sophisticated electronic equipment. We sell and rent tapping equipment."
How did things come to this?
It all has to do with Israel's origins in the first half of the 20th century, from the days when the "kibbutz," or communal farm, was the backbone of society.
Professor Moshe Lissak, from the sociology department at the Hebrew University, says that after Israel achieved statehood in 1948, "Privacy was not an integral part of democracy. It was a neglected concept. Whether you were politically left, right, center or religious, the ideal citizen was not considered as an individual but as part of a collective, and it was OK for your peers to interfere with your private feelings. . . . [Some] exploited this ethos in an illegal way."
That's how wiretapping got started.
Police and state security services led the way, and some believe they still set the pace. Only three years ago, a state comptroller's report on police wiretapping concluded: "The prevalence of tapping in Israel is especially high compared to that undertaken in the rest of the democratic world."
The Secret Eavesdropping Law of 1979 outlawed wiretapping. But it also set guidelines for state agencies that wanted to eavesdrop, in effect institutionalizing the practice.
Not that the law means much, anyway. Two investigators convictedlast year of tapping the lines of 10 businessmen and public figures got off with suspended sentences and small fines -- $330 for one and $660 for the other. With penalties so light, detectives who do the tapping are happy to take the fall for their clients.
But the latest scandal has put this freewheeling atmosphere on hold.
e "Usually after scandals like these, there is a dry period," Mr. Guzman says. But after a while, he says, everyone will go back to doing what they did before.
Mr. Lissak, the sociologist, isn't so sure. He sees the reaction as part of a larger trend. In the new Basic Law ratified two years ago, he notes that Israel for the first time officially recognized an individual's right to privacy.
"It is part of the public discourse now," he says. "It's a real revolution, and the politicians still don't realize it is a revolution."
Nor do the detectives.
"The severity of the punishment will not be an issue in tapping," Mr. Guzman predicts. "Everything has its price, and the price of the service will increase with the severity of the punishment."
But he hastens to add: "We are not concerned with the prospect of heavier sentences, because my office does not deal with illegal tapping."