JERUSALEM (Feb. 26)
The once-vaunted image of the Mossad has been tarnished again.
The latest blow to Israel’s foreign intelligence service came Thursday, when Israeli and Swiss officials confirmed reports that an Israeli Mossad agent had been arrested in Switzerland in connection with an attempt to bug telephones in a building on the outskirts of Bern.
Swiss officials said the man had been arrested while trying to install wiretapping equipment in the building.
Four other Israelis were also believed to have been involved in the affair – – two who went into the building with him, and two who apparently stood watch outside.
Police were alerted when a neighbor called in the middle of the night to say that there were people loitering outside the building.
The four were apparently released by local police after being detained briefly and were believed to have left the country, according to Swiss officials.
They added that contrary to reports in Israel, the bugging involved the home of a private citizen, not diplomats.
The officials would not comment on reports that the five were attempting to eavesdrop on members of the fundamentalist Hezbollah movement.
The Israeli arrested was facing charges of illegal espionage activity, conducting an illegal wiretap and damaging private property.
In Israel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu confirmed news of the arrest.
“An Israeli citizen has been arrested in Switzerland,” he told reporters in Tel Aviv. “The matter is being dealt with, and we will do what we have to do” to secure his release.
Switzerland launched an official protest over the incident and has demanded an apology from Israel. The Israeli ambassador to Switzerland already has expressed regret over the incident, Israel Radio reported.
Israeli media also reported that the Swiss went public with the affair only after leaks about it appeared in the Israeli media.
The Israeli daily Yediot Achronot had reported Wednesday that a recent operational foul-up by the Mossad was believed to have led to the resignation this week of Mossad’s director, Danny Yatom.
Israel Television later expanded upon the report, saying that the incident had occurred in a Western European country that had “one of the friendliest relations” with Israel.
Yatom had come under fire last week by a government-appointed commission for another Mossad operation last September in Jordan. In that episode, Israeli agents botched an attempt to assassinate a Hamas leader there.
In December, reports surfaced that a veteran Mossad field officer had been feeding his superiors misleading information about Syria and pocketing money intended for informers.
That official, Yehuda Gil, is currently on trial.
According to observers, the failed operation in Switzerland provided the last nail in Yatom’s professional coffin.
What’s less clear, however, is the long-term implications for the Mossad and its ability to carry out its operations.