Moving to repair the damage from its spy agency’s latest blunder, Israel made a half-hearted apology to Switzerland on Friday for trying to wiretap a suspected member of an Islamic militant group in the Swiss capital.
In a letter to the Swiss president, Israel said it regretted any trouble the incident caused but noted that terrorism continues to threaten Israel’s security and the stability of the Middle East.
Israel and Switzerland tried to settle the matter quietly after five agents of its Mossad intelligence organization were caught in Bern earlier this month.
But leaks in Israel this week--reportedly by disgruntled Mossad officials trying to push out their boss--forced the Swiss to go public and demand an apology.
Switzerland prides itself on its neutrality, and a forgiving attitude toward Israel would have angered some Arab countries. In response to the incident, Iran has already demanded that Switzerland guarantee security for Iranian diplomats.
Initial Israeli news reports said that an Iranian mission in Switzerland was the target of the wiretapping operation. However, the Yediot Aharonot newspaper and Israel Radio said Friday that the Mossad agents were trying to bug the phone of a member of Hezbollah, an Iranian-backed Shiite Muslim guerrilla group seeking to drive Israel out of Lebanon. The man had ties to Iranian intelligence, Israel Radio said.
Swiss TV has said the target was a member of Hamas, a Palestinian group that has carried out a series of suicide bombings in Israel aimed at derailing Middle East peacemaking.
The five Mossad agents were caught after they made so much noise trying to install the surveillance equipment in the basement of an apartment building in the Bern suburb of Liebefeld that they awakened a tenant, who alerted the police.
Authorities quickly released four of the agents because they could not find any incriminating evidence. But the fifth agent, caught with wiretapping equipment, was held. He faked a heart attack and was taken to a hospital.
An Israeli official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Friday the apology was held up by a concern that the Mossad agent could face more serious charges if Israel publicly acknowledged that it was behind the operation.