MK Israel Hasson Office/AP
In this photo made available by the office of Israeli Knesset Member Israel Hasson on Oct. 26, Ilan Grapel, a US-Israeli citizen arrested in Egypt sits between Israel Hasson (r.) and lawyer Yitzhak Molcho in Cairo, Egypt.

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.

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.

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.

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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