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Alleged Spy Incident Strains Swiss-Israeli Diplomatic Ties

By Tracy Wilkinson
Los Angeles Times

The embarrassing arrest in Switzerland of an alleged Israeli spy escalated Thursday into an international diplomatic crisis after the Swiss demanded an apology that Israeli officials refused to give.

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, 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," he told reporters. "We will do what's needed to solve the problem."

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

In Bern, Switzerland, 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 agents were detected when a neighbor who couldn't 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, who were released after questioning. It was not clear why they were released. Israeli television reported Thursday night that they 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 media reports that the targets were Iranian diplomats, giving rise to speculation that 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." Swiss President Flavio Cotti was quoted as saying he was contemplating canceling a planned trip to Israel.

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 problem faced by Israeli authorities, analysts said.

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

The picture of Mossad that has emerged in recent days is of an agency riven by low morale, in-fighting 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 news media, despite strict censorship laws. Several Israeli politicians blasted the use of leaks, which they said reflected the low morale and discontent in Mossad and further endangered national security.