JERUSALEM (Feb. 10)
Israel’s fragile relations with Egypt suffered another blow this week when an Arab citizen of Israel, arrested in Cairo, allegedly confessed to spying for the Mossad, Israel’s foreign intelligence service.
Whether or not the confession was genuine became irrelevant. The damage to relations between the countries was done once Egypt’s interior minister, Abdul Halim Mussa, announced officially that “the Israeli has confessed that he was acting on behalf of the Mossad.”
Actually, three Israeli Arabs are suspect, Farres Mussarti, a 41-year-old resident of Ramla, and his daughter, Faya, 17, were arrested while visiting Cairo last week and reportedly confessed to espionage after several days of questioning.
Mussarti’s son, Majed, 21, who returned to Cairo from Libya on Sunday, reportedly turned himself in to Egyptian authorities.
The case is the first since Israel and Egypt signed their peace treaty in 1979 in which Israeli nationals have been detained by Egypt as suspected spies.
The Israeli Foreign Ministry refused to comment on the allegations. But it is furious over the way the Egyptians have handled the matter, leaking information to the media but refusing to inform Israel through official channels of what is going on.
No Israeli representative has been allowed to meet with the detainees.
Ronni Porat, the Israeli consul in Cairo, met Sunday with a senior official of the State Prosecutor’s Office in Cairo, who told him he could not discuss the case as long as it was under investigation.
There had been some earlier speculation that the suspects may have been spying for a third country, possibly Egypt’s western neighbor, Libya.
The interior minister’s announcement linking the Israelis to Mossad surprised and angered the Israelis, because they had to learn about it from the media. The Egyptians did inform them in advance of their suspicions.
The Israeli Embassy in Cairo is trying to find out why Israel was refused information on grounds of an investigation in progress while the Egyptian– and world media– was quoting the interior minister’s accusations.
“We insist on the basic consular right to visit detainees and to receive relevant information,” the Foreign Ministry said in a statement.
HE WAS ‘ONLY TRAVELING’
Mussarti and his wife, Sara, parents of four children, live in a poor neighborhood of Ramla. They previously lived in Kafr Kasim, an Arab village near Kfar Sava, where Farres had been a blacksmith and did odd jobs.
Last year, they sold their apartment in the village and moved to the Ramla house, owned by Farres’ parents. They used the proceeds of the sale to take the entire family on an extended tour of Egypt, where they “stayed with friends,” Sara said in an interview last week.
A month ago, Sara said, she returned home with her youngest daughter, Hadije. Since then, she said, she has not heard from her husband or other children. She said doctors had advised her husband to stay in Egypt because the climate was good for his asthma.
But he was “only traveling,” she has said repeatedly. The idea the he was spying was incomprehensible, she insisted.
Apart from its effects on Israeli-Egyptian relations, the Mussarti affair could escalate into an internal issue of the kind that has bedeviled Israeli politics in the past.
Because Mussarti is accused of spying on a friendly country, some Israelis see a parallel with the Jonathan Pollard case.
Pollard, an American Jew employed by the U.S. Navy as an intelligence analyst, confessed to spying for Israel and is now serving a life sentence in a U.S. penitentiary.
Israel officially dismissed his activities as a rogue operation for which it was not responsible.
FALLOUT FROM 1956 SCANDAL
The political fallout at home was much worse after the 1956 spy scandal that tarnished the reputation of Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion and plagued the Labor Party for years.
In that case, a number of Israeli agents were detained in Egypt and several were hanged on charges of planting bombs at the American Library in Cairo and at a local movie house.
Israel and Egypt were officially in a state of war at the time. The alleged mission of the spies was to sabotage U.S. Egyptian relations by having the explosions, and whatever damage or injuries they caused, blamed on the Egyptians.
The episode became known in Israel as “The Blunder” or simply “The Affair.”
“If eventually it turns out that someone here had instructed Israeli citizens to spy in Cairo, a new ‘affair’ will blow up here and someone will be required to explain and to pay the price,” the daily Yediot Achronot said Monday.
The newspaper observed that “no information collected today in Egypt is worth the dangers that this affair can cause.”