Monday, December 06, 2004

Egypt and Israel Trade Prisoners, in Sign of Rising Cooperation

The New York Times
December 6, 2004

Egypt and Israel Trade Prisoners, in Sign of Rising Cooperation

JERUSALEM, Dec. 5 - Egypt on Sunday released an Israeli convicted of spying, and Israel reciprocated by freeing six young Egyptian infiltrators in an exchange that reflected the expanding cooperation between the Middle East neighbors.

The deal settled two rather bizarre cases and highlighted continuing Israeli and Egyptian efforts to solve larger regional questions after several years of badly strained relations linked to the Palestinian uprising.

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon of Israel and President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt spoke by telephone after the exchange and said they were looking forward to a strong working relationship, Mr. Sharon's office said.

The warm words and confidence-building gestures, so rare in the past four years of turmoil, have contributed to an improved regional atmosphere in recent weeks as all the major figures reassess their positions after the death of the Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat.

Egypt freed Azzam Azzam, an Israeli citizen in his 40's who belongs to the Druse sect, an offshoot of Islam. He was arrested in 1996 in Cairo, where he was a manager at a textile factory. He was accused of using invisible ink on women's underwear hidden in a suitcase to pass information to Israel about Egyptian factories. Israel and Mr. Azzam, who was serving a 15-year term, have always denied he was a spy, saying he was only a businessman.

Israel sent home six Egyptian students in their 20's who were detained shortly after they entered Israel four months ago, with knives and an air gun. The Israeli authorities contended that the students had intended to kidnap Israeli soldiers and seize a tank in an effort to assist Palestinians in their fight against Israel.

"Today the entire country is united in its joy over your coming home," Mr. Sharon told Mr. Azzam in a telephone conversation, according to the prime minister's office.

Mr. Sharon and Mr. Mubarak have a history of strained relations, but recently they have been talking on the phone with some regularity.

"I thanked him for his decision, and we both discussed the matter and spoke about deepening bilateral relations," Mr. Sharon said of his conversation with the Egyptian president. He went so far as to say he believed that they could "reach great achievements for future generations."

The Israeli leader also told Israeli security officials on Sunday to consider reducing the prison terms of some Palestinians.

The prisoner exchange was not announced in advance, but Israeli officials said the details were worked out on Wednesday during a visit by Egypt's foreign minister, Ahmed Aboul Gheit, and its intelligence chief, Omar Suleiman.

The day after their visit, Mr. Mubarak had uncharacteristically warm words for Mr. Sharon, saying that the Israeli leader was capable of advancing Middle East peace, and that the Palestinians should take advantage of that.

Israeli-Egyptian relations, never friendly despite a 1979 peace treaty, had been particularly cool since the Palestinian uprising began four years ago.

The catalyst for the improved ties has been regular consultations on Israel's plan to withdraw soldiers and settlers from the Gaza Strip next year.

Egypt has welcomed the opportunity to play a larger role as a mediator between the Israelis and Palestinians. In addition, Israel and Egypt share a common interest in establishing stability in Gaza after an Israeli withdrawal.

Israel has asked Egypt to make a greater effort to prevent weapons smuggling by Palestinians along the Gaza-Egypt border. The two sides are working on a plan to increase the number of Egyptian security forces on the border, which was limited by the 1979 treaty.

The Egyptians helped persuade the Palestinian factions to agree to a unilateral truce in the summer of 2003. Though the truce never took hold completely, Egypt has continued to serve as a broker among the various Palestinian groups.

Egypt also has urged the Palestinians to reform their security forces, and Mr. Mubarak spoke out last week to endorse Mahmoud Abbas, the pragmatist who is favored to win the Jan. 9 election to replace Mr. Arafat as leader of the Palestinian Authority.

The prisoner exchange signaled a victory for diplomacy despite two recent events that could have undermined those efforts.

On Nov. 19, an Israeli tank crew shot dead three Egyptian policemen who were mistaken for Palestinian militants along the Gaza-Egypt border. Shortly afterward, Mr. Sharon called and apologized to Mr. Mubarak.

On Oct. 7, unidentified bombers hit the Hilton Hotel in Taba, Egypt, which is just across the border from Israel and hugely popular with Israeli tourists. More than 30 people were killed, including about a dozen Israelis.

For years, tens of thousands of Israelis have taken beach holidays in Egypt along the Red Sea coast in the Sinai Peninsula. It was one of the few places in the Arab world where Israelis traveled in large numbers. The attack has driven Israeli tourists out of Sinai, but it has not set back relations at the government level.

After the Palestinian uprising began in September 2000, Israeli relations with Egypt worsened, with Egypt withdrawing its ambassador from Israel to protest Israeli military action against the Palestinians.

But Ron Prosor, the director general of the Israeli Foreign Ministry, told Israeli radio that he believed that the Egyptian ambassador could return soon.

On Sunday, the Egyptian students were sent back to Egypt, and shortly afterward Mr. Azzam entered Israel at the Taba border crossing.

"I believed, because the state of Israel takes care of its citizens," Mr. Azzam was quoted as saying by The Associated Press, indicating that he had not lost hope that he would be freed.

News of his release prompted a spontaneous party in his hometown, Mughar, a mountainside village in northern Israel, where residents set up a stage and sang and danced into the night.

At the time of his arrest, Mr. Azzam was working at a textile factory that was a partnership between Israelis and Egyptians. The Egyptian authorities accused him of working for the Mossad intelligence agency.

Israel has often refused to comment in cases regarding Israelis suspected of spying. But in Mr. Azzam's case, the government had said he was not a spy and had lobbied vigorously for his release.

Israel's health minister, Danny Naveh, who met with Mr. Azzam several times during his imprisonment, said he was kept in solitary confinement because the Egyptians were concerned that other prisoners might try to harm him.

In Cairo, the Egyptian news agency MENA said Mr. Azzam was freed after serving a considerable part of his prison term, which was about half.