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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.

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The deal was not costly to Israel, because the prisoners released were arrested on trafficking charges, and were not accused of terrorism or espionage. They include three minors, while the rest are Bedouins held mainly on smuggling charges who were arrested on Egypt’s border with Israel in the Sinai peninsula. Egypt had been calling for their release for some time. Their release will win the military points with the Bedouin in the Sinai, whose cooperation the military needs to bring security to the region.

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And empowering the military council currently ruling Egypt by handing it a victory is in Israel’s interest, says Eli Shaked, a former Israeli ambassador to Cairo.

“I believe that this is in the interest of Israel – to see that Egypt is getting its stability, with the supreme military council leading Egypt into reforms and elections, that Egypt is again the stable Arab country that is leading the Middle East and it has the leverage on Hamas as it used to be,” he says. “This is the interest of Israel that the military council governs a stable Egypt.”

Shalit deal smoothed the way

By arresting and imprisoning Grapel, Egypt pulled a stunt more usually seen in nations like Iran. When he was arrested, the Army accused him of being sent by the Mossad to incite conflict between the people and the Army. He was later charged with incitement to burn down a police station and Egypt said he would face trial.

Grapel’s father, who lives in New York, told Israeli newspaper Haaretz that the espionage charges against his son were “beyond ridiculous.” Before his arrest, Grapel had posted photos of himself on his Facebook page posing at the pyramids and in Tahrir square – moves a spy would be highly unlikely to make. At a press conference after the release of Gilad Shalit, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said she hoped Grapel would also be released. “We see no basis for any legal action against him,” she said.

Israeli media reported that the US, which had tried but failed to negotiate Grapel's release with Egypt over the summer, mediated the Egyptian-Israeli deal. The US Embassy in Egypt would not comment on the matter.

An Egyptian government source said the deal for Grapel was not related to the one for Shalit a week earlier, but it smoothed the way. “After the deal on Shalit, it was obvious that the Israeli side was able after all to conclude a swap deal," he said. "So that is something that has made an opening.”

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