Israel Refuses Apology to Swiss in Spy Scandal


The embarrassing arrest in Switzerland of an Israeli accused of spying escalated Thursday into an international diplomatic crisis after the Swiss demanded an apology and Israeli officials refused to give it.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu moved to salvage the reputation and credibility of his nation’s intelligence service, battered by widespread publicity surrounding the arrest, a failed assassination in Jordan and other scandals revealed in recent months.

The director of the besieged spy agency, the Mossad, was forced from office this week, and calls for a major overhaul of the institution were mounting.


Netanyahu confirmed the detention of an Israeli citizen in Switzerland, and other officials reported “intense” negotiations to free him.

“We are taking care of matters,” Netanyahu told reporters. “We will do what’s needed to solve the problem.”

But David Bar-Illan, Netanyahu’s spokesman, said Thursday that Israel will not issue a public apology. Doing so, other sources noted, would be an admission that the detained man is a spy and his mission a state-sanctioned act of espionage.

In Bern, Swiss prosecutors said the alleged Mossad agent was being held after he and four others were caught trying to bug a house in the Swiss capital.

The five men were detected when a neighbor who could not sleep happened to peer out her window in the middle of the night. She alerted police.

Swiss Federal Prosecutor Carla del Ponte, in a news conference, said arrest warrants have been issued for the four others, who were released after questioning. It was not clear why they were freed.


Israeli television reported Thursday that the four released men had returned to Israel. The man in Swiss custody has been assigned a lawyer and may face trial or deportation, reports from Bern said.

The Feb. 19 bugging operation targeted “foreigners” living in Bern, Swiss authorities said.

They denied earlier Israeli press reports that the targets were Iranian diplomats, giving rise to speculation that the Mossad may have been pursuing Hezbollah militants or businessmen dealing with Iran.

Switzerland’s Foreign Ministry issued a strongly worded protest against “this breach to our sovereignty and violation of international law by the Israeli secret service,” said Pierre Monod, Bern’s envoy to Israel.

“It is unacceptable,” he said, adding that Switzerland expected an apology.

The protest was delivered to Yitzhak Meir, Israel’s ambassador to Switzerland, on Monday, and he was reported to have expressed “regrets.”

Jakob Kellenberger, the Swiss Foreign Ministry’s secretary of state, said the incident had a “chilling effect on relations between friendly countries.”


The affront to extensive Israeli-Swiss relations will probably fade in the short term. But damage to Israel’s intelligence-gathering capabilities is the more serious longer-range problem faced by Israeli authorities, analysts said.

The Mossad, which became legendary for hunting down Nazi war criminals and executing Islamic terrorists, has been dragged through chapter upon chapter of embarrassing publicity after the Sept. 25 botched attempt to assassinate a Hamas political leader in Jordan. That was followed by revelations that Yehuda Gil, one of the Mossad’s star spooks, faked reports that Syria was preparing for war. Gil was indicted in January.

The picture of the Mossad that has emerged in recent days is of an agency riven by low morale, infighting and a lack of confidence in senior officers. Far from the storied Mossad of nerves-of-steel exploits, the agency is described as handicapped, increasingly inefficient and in disarray.

Such weakness and doubt have begun to infect all of Israel’s intelligence agencies, analysts here say, undermining the public’s confidence in its national leadership.

“This . . . could only have given cheer to Israel’s enemies,” the Jerusalem Post said in an editorial Thursday. “A good deal of Israel’s deterrence was based on the legendary aura of effectiveness that its intelligence arms built over decades.”

The Mossad arrest in Switzerland was disclosed through leaks to the Israeli media, despite strict censorship laws.


Several Israeli politicians blasted the use of leaks, which they said reflected the low morale and discontent in the Mossad and further endangered national security.

“I have nothing but the strongest condemnation [of leaks] . . . which undermine the security of the state of Israel and, at times, its very existence,” influential Cabinet minister Ariel Sharon told reporters.

There was growing consensus here that Netanyahu will have to move quickly to repair damage to the Mossad.

His first task is to replace Danny Yatom, the embattled Mossad chief who quit Tuesday. He had been blamed for the failed assassination bid in Jordan, and leaks of the Swiss arrest proved to be his final undoing.

Netanyahu consulted Thursday with three former Mossad chiefs and discussed candidates with two key Cabinet ministers, Sharon and Defense Minister Yitzhak Mordechai. Netanyahu could turn to the army to lead the troubled spy network.

“Mossad must undergo some kind of rehabilitation,” a knowledgeable political source said. “There is some fat that will have to be trimmed. If the right person is chosen [to head the Mossad], someone of boldness and determination, it may not be such a long process.”