Imagine that the chairman of The Washington Post decided to tackle the competition a little more directly--and took out murder contracts on the publishers of the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal.

Preposterous, you say? Professional self-interest compels an answer in the affirmative.

But change the names and the newspapers, and that is the gist of the scandal now engulfing Israel, where the chairman of one of the country's three leading newspapers is under investigation for plotting to eliminate the publishers of the other two.

In a country that's known its share of scandal, this one is impossibly, deliciously sordid. All the elements are there: wiretaps, bribery, blackmail, corrupt cops and international intrigue.

At the heart of it all is Ofer Nimrodi, 43, chairman of the scrappy daily newspaper Maariv. Impeccably dressed, possessor of a Harvard MBA, son of a multimillionaire arms dealer, Nimrodi is an Israeli media mogul with interests in book publishing, the recording industry, real estate, insurance, television and cable. When he was married for the second time earlier this year, his wedding was a spectacular affair whose guest list was a Who's Who of Israel's power elite. Both Binyamin Netanyahu, prime minister at the time, and Ehud Barak, the current premier, attended.

But Nimrodi is not exactly a golden boy. After a three-year investigation, he was convicted last year for illegally tapping the phones of an array of prominent media, political and business figures and obstructing justice. He was released earlier this year after serving four months of an eight-month prison sentence.

That case excited the Israeli media for months, but it was small potatoes compared with the current allegations.

In recent days, police sources let it be known that since August they have been investigating allegations Nimrodi conspired to commit murder and to disrupt a police investigation, principally by paying bribes. And police disclosed that two of those he is suspected of targeting for murder are the chiefs of Israel's other two daily newspapers: Arnon Mozes of the best-selling tabloid Yedioth Ahronoth, and Amos Schocken of the upscale broadsheet Haaretz.

The third man on his alleged hit list is Yaacov Tzur, a former private investigator who was a principal government witness against Nimrodi in the wiretapping case against him that unfolded in 1996. Police suspect that in the midst of that investigation, Nimrodi may have tried to hatch a plan to lure him to Southeast Asia for a contract murder.

"This is the most detailed model of organized crime ever exposed in Israel," said Amnon Abramovitz of Israel's government-owned Channel 1, a veteran muckraking journalist.

Nimrodi and his lawyers have denied the reports heatedly. He has pointed the finger at his chief accuser, a former private detective named Rafi Pridan, who is serving a four-year prison sentence for his own role in Nimrodi's wiretapping episode. Pridan, says Nimrodi, is a blackmailer who tried and failed to extract $3 million from him and is now making wild allegations.

"Murder?" said an incredulous Nimrodi, who spoke to reporters staking out his luxurious villa today in the exclusive Israeli community of Savyon. "I am simply shocked. Rafi Pridan told me: 'If you do not pay me millions of dollars, I will tell such stories about you, stories that will bury you both personally and professionally. And by the time they are found to be false you'll already be finished.' He threatened, I didn't give in, and this is the outcome."

Police say they will interrogate Nimrodi soon. But the mogul has not helped his own case, at least in the court of public opinion, by some of his past actions.

For instance, Israeli television broadcast video footage last week in which Nimrodi is shown sitting alone in a police interrogation room during the investigation into his wiretapping three years ago. When investigators momentarily leave the room, Nimrodi tears a piece of paper from a document on the table, puts it in his pocket, quickly reconsiders, and then eats it. He is shown taking a drink of water to wash it down just as the detective reenters the room.

Nimrodi, who bought Maariv in 1992, has stepped down temporarily as its chairman, and as managing director of a broader consortium under his control, Israeli Land Development Corp. He is to be interrogated in the coming days on his role in the alleged murder-for-hire scheme, police say.

Nonetheless, police have said their investigation has been hampered, even in the last day or two, by outside interference. This week they arrested two former police officers on suspicion that they offered bribe money on Nimrodi's behalf to a current police superintendent, and passed inside information on the investigation to Nimrodi. The police superintendent has also been suspended from the force.

Indeed, Haaretz reported this week that the police were hamstrung by the fear that Nimrodi was privy to every move they made--and every word their witnesseses uttered.

Amid the allegations of skulduggery, analysts worried about the future of Israel's media and the integrity of its institutions.

"It shows that our democracy is sick because the two major tenets of democracy, the law enforcement mechanism or police on the one hand, and the free media on the other, are deeply corrupt," said Moshe Negbi, a liberal commentator for Israeli radio. "And when one hears about senior police investigators being up for sale for money to criminals and suspects, this of course smells of mafia."

Nimrodi and the two publishers on his alleged hit list are more than just prominent media barons in Israel. They are the Israeli media.

Among the three of them, they control virtually every significant outlet of privately owned print and electronic media in the country. "This has no parallel in the democratic world," Negbi said.

No one has been able to figure out what motive Nimrodi might have for wanting to liquidate his main business rivals. The future of the criminal investigation is unclear. But already there is talk of drafting new laws to straighten out what some say are the problems with the Israeli media.

One left-wing lawmaker, Tamar Gozansky, is proposing legislation to bar anyone convicted of a crime of moral turpitude from running a newspaper. It makes no sense, she said, that someone convicted of such a crime is prohibited from managing a bank, but is free to manage a newspaper.

"A bank does not determine the public agenda," she said. "A newspaper does."

CAPTION: Ofer Nimrodi is under investigation for plotting to kill his rivals.