Egypt saves face in swap of alleged Israeli spy Ilan Grapel
A swap today of alleged Israeli spy Ilan Grapel for 25 Egyptian prisoners helps patch up relations between Israel and Egypt.
An American-Israeli law student Egypt accused of spying for Israel is on his way home after the two nations arranged a prisoner exchange deal that will allow Egypt’s military rulers to claim a victory at home while patching up relations with Israel.Skip to next paragraph
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The US and Israel have denied the espionage charges against Ilan Grapel, who was arrested in June. By most accounts, Mr. Grapel is a law student at Georgia’s Emory University who came to Egypt to volunteer with a refugee resettlement group for the summer.
His Israeli citizenship and service in the IDF during Israel’s 2006 war with Hezbollah made him a convenient target for Egypt’s military leaders, who have sought to discredit Egyptian protesters by promoting the narrative that foreign powers are sending spies to Egypt to destabilize the country.
“[The military] arrested Grapel in order to send a message to the Egyptian public that Egypt is targeted by Western powers,” says Emad Gad of the Al Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies. “After sending this message, they could get rid of the tool – Grapel. But they don’t want to say, ‘We fabricated the story,' …. so they have to reach the deal with the Israeli side.”
Egypt saves face with today's prisoner swap
The prisoner exchange is taking place today at Taba, on Egypt’s border with Israel.
The Egyptian military, by holding Grapel for more than four months and using him as leverage to secure the release of 25 Egyptians imprisoned in Israel, is able to champion its own success. Israel did Egypt’s military council a favor by giving Egypt a way out of the situation without losing face, says Dr. Gad.
It also allows Egypt to close the file on several issues that have plagued relations with Israel.
Israel-Egypt relations hit a low in August, when Israeli soldiers killed six Egyptian border guards after a terrorist attack in the Sinai. Several weeks later, an angry crowd breached the Israeli embassy in Cairo, leading Israel to withdraw its ambassador and nearly all its diplomatic staff.
By patching up relations since then, the military council is also sending a message to the West that it will maintain Egypt’s ties with Israel, Gad says. The February overthrow of former President Hosni Mubarak, who maintained Egypt’s unpopular peace treaty with Israel, has caused some in the West to worry that the Israel-Egypt relationship could rupture.
Why the deal is in Israel's interest
Israel’s decision to exchange prisoners for what it claims is an unjustly imprisoned citizen in a nation with which it has diplomatic relations is unusual. But had Grapel truly been a spy, says Gad, Egypt would have exacted a much higher price for his release.