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News analysis: Possible Israeli-Egyptian "spy" swap signals stabilizing relations

(Xinhua)

09:02, October 24, 2011

JERUSALEM, Oct. 23 (Xinhua) -- Israel may be in the final stages of completing its second prisoner swap in less than a week, according to Egyptian officials who have said that the terms for exchanging for Israeli-American tourist Ilan Grapel are in the works.

Grapel holds dual citizenship and has served in the Israeli army. Egyptian authorities arrested him in June and at first accused him of spying for Israel. The charges, however, were later reduced to taking part in insurrection and incitement activities against the government, which allegedly occurred during the demonstrations against former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak earlier this year.

Nineteen Egyptian citizens being held in Israeli prisons may be released in exchange for Grapel, according to Israeli media. Last week, Israel released the first 477 of 1,027 Palestinian security prisoners in exchange for Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, who was abducted by Hamas militants in Gaza in 2006. Egypt was the main broker of the Shalit deal.

"The exchange that now hopefully will take place is a means by both sides, and especially from the Egyptian side, to get down from a tree that they shouldn't have climbed in from the start because they made the mistake in identifying him as a spy," Prof. Uri Bar-Joseph of the University of Haifa told Xinhua on Sunday.

His words were echoed by Dr. Mark Heller of Tel Aviv University, who said that he too didn't think that Grapel was an Israeli spy.

"If he really is a spy, the Israeli intelligence services have really deteriorated very badly so much so that it makes one worry, " Heller said.

"The Egyptians are probably unwilling to acknowledge they made a mistake so they want it go through some deal to make it look like they caught somebody real," Heller added.

Bar-Joseph, for his part, said that it's possible that the Egyptians at first really did suspect Grapel of being a spy, but later realized their misjudgment. Had they really believed that Grapel was spying for Israel, they would never have considered a prisoner swap as a way to save face.

"If they would really suspect him of being a spy, then they wouldn't let him go so quickly. First, at least they would have put him on trial and then maybe exchange him -- but not before," he said.

HISTORICAL TIES

"There is a certain warming now in the Israel-Egyptians relations, mainly because of the role of the Egyptians in the Shalit deal," Bar-Joseph said, adding that "It's an indicator that the Egyptians are more positive towards Israel."

Egypt became the first Arab country to sign a peace agreement with the Jewish state in 1979, however the deal never won the approval of the average Egyptians.

When former Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, who signed the deal, was assassinated in 1981, it was believed that the peace treaty was one of the main motives for the killing. Despite the unpopularity of the deal, however, Sadat's successor Hosni Mubarak maintained it, and developed solid but cold relations with Israel.

But while Israelis flocked to the pyramids on cheap package deals, very few Egyptians even reciprocated the visits, with Egyptian trade unions and professional groups blacklisting tourism to Israel and the Cairo media incessantly reviling their neighbor to the east with anti-Semitic harangues.

Mubarak's official policies towards Israel, however, earned the graces of the United States, which mediated the peace agreement, and Egypt became the second largest recipient of U.S. military aid after Israel.

When Mubarak was forced to step down in February after massive protests paralyzed the country, an interim military council under Field Marshall Mohamed Hussein Tantawi took over.

According to Bar-Joseph, Tantawi has now realized that Grapel is not a spy and that he hopes to maintain the U.S. support, which is crucial to the Egyptian army by finding a quick solution that is acceptable to all sides.

"From the Egyptian perspective it's a move that aims to show good will towards the United States and Israel," Bar-Joseph said.

BIGGER ISSUES

Abdel-Rahman Hussein, foreign affairs correspondent with The Daily Star Egypt, said that while a deal might stabilize relations somewhat on the political or diplomatic level, "I doubt whether that would have any effect on popular sentiment. It would also depend on the Egyptian prisoners that would be released."

Hussein argued that to the man-on-the-street in Cairo, the deal isn't all that important as the country has other and larger problems to deal with, as Egypt tries to organize the first election of the post-Mubarak era, but again, it would depend on the specifics of the exchange.

"I don't think whatever opposition there is in the Egyptian street to the peace treaty would be mollified by such an exchange, " Hussein argued, noting that "the issues are bigger than that and entail a more just solution regarding the Palestinian people."

Bar-Joseph said that while there are some similarities between the Shalit and Grapel cases, there are also huge differences: Shalit was an Israeli Defense Forces soldier kidnapped by militants, and Israel was more committed to him as such. Grapel, on the other hand, is an American Jew who visited Egypt. It's obvious that he wasn't sent by the Israelis and that it was his own decision to go there, Bar-Joseph argued, saying that in that sense Israel is far less committed to him than to Shalit.

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