Switzerland’s highest court is forcing Israel’s Mossad to relive one of its most embarrassing episodes.
On Monday, the Federal Court began trying an agent with Israel’s foreign intelligence service for his role in a botched wiretap attempt.
The defendant gave the court a pseudonym, Isaac Bental, out of concerns for his safety.
Bental was one of five Mossad operatives caught red-handed in February 1998 while attempting to bug an apartment near the Swiss capital of Bern. The apartment belonged to a businessman with suspected links to the Islamic fundamentalist group Hezbollah.
Local police released the other four agents after briefly detaining them.
The operation came on the heels of another botched Mossad operation — an attempt to assassinate Hamas political leader Khaled Mashaal in Jordan in September 1997.
When the bugging attempt was made public, red-faced Israeli officials posted nearly $1 million in bail for Bental and issued a public apology to Switzerland. Bental returned to Israel in April 1998 on condition he return for the trial.
Some observers say the affair came at a welcome time for the Swiss government, which was then coming under heavy pressure from Jewish groups for its financial dealings with Nazi Germany.
In 1998, one Swiss diplomat said the Bern government “should cook the Mossad case at the highest possible level.”
Such sentiments could explain why Switzerland’s highest court is handling the case, which would normally fall within the purview of a regional court.
Bental, who has admitted to his role in the incident, faces charges that include espionage and carrying out illegal acts for a foreign state.
The espionage charge carries a jail sentence of up to four years.
Bental arrived in Switzerland on Monday. Israeli and Swiss lawyers, and representatives of the Israeli Embassy, accompanied him when he entered the court just minutes before the trial began.
While the court allowed Bental to use an assumed name, it did not make special provisions to prevent people from seeing his face.
Indeed, the court allowed photographers and a television crew to take pictures of the agent.
Hans Wipraechtiger, the president of the Federal Court, told JTA, “It is very possible that the agent will be allowed to return to Israel at the end of the trial.”
Legal experts have suggested that, given the diplomatic sensitivities of the case, Bental will get a one-year suspended sentence.
The trial was slated to last only several days.
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.