Detention of Israeli in Cairo Prison Threatens Confrontation with Egypt

The continued detention of Israeli furniture importer David Ovitz in an Egyptian jail has become a domestic political issue here and has the potential to explode into an international diplomatic confrontation with Cairo.

Bitterness toward Egypt was evident in Defense Minister Moshe Arens’ remarks to the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee.

Arens told the panel Tuesday that the peace treaty Israel singed with Egypt in 1979 has had little practical significance.

According to David Ivri, director general of the Defense Ministry, it is not a treaty at all but a cease-fire agreement that has lasted 15 years.

Ivri, who spoke at a symposium in Tel Aviv, said relations between the two countries deteriorated after Egyptian President Anwar Sadat was assassinated in October 1981.

According to him, Sadat’s successor, President Hosni Mubarak, has no interest in Israel’s continued existence.

Foreign Minister David Levy sent a message Monday to the Egyptian foreign minister, Amre Moussa, demanding the immediate release of Ovitz, who is suspected of espionage.

Although he has been held in custody for more than 60 days, no formal charges have been brought against the Israeli.

The Givatayim resident was remanded for an additional 45 days by an Egyptian court last week and is not expected to be released in the immediate future, despite Levy’s tough note.

The Israeli foreign minister seemed to favor quiet, behind-the-scenes diplomacy. But he was spurred to more visible action by criticism from his political archrival, Ariel Sharon, and by mounting public pressure generated by Ovitz family members.

ISRAEL ‘NOT DOING ENOUGH’

Housing Minister Sharon complained at the weekly Cabinet meeting Sunday that “Israel is not doing enough to protect its citizens imprisoned in Arab countries.”

He demanded “greater sensitivity and firmness toward those holding Israeli citizens unjustly.”

Levy rejected the criticism. He said Israeli diplomats in Cairo were acting “with dedication” to secure the release of Israeli prisoners at every level of government, including contacts with President Mubarak.

But he admitted that so far, those efforts have been of no avail.

During an election campaign visit to Yavne, Levy said “Ovitz is completely innocent” and “is being blamed for something he hasn’t done.”

An Egyptian court rejected an offer by the Israeli consul general in Cairo, Ronni Porat, to vouch for Ovitz’s presence at any hearing if he would be released on bail.

Nor was the court moved by the fact that Ovitz’s wife, Yael, is three months’ pregnant.

The Israeli ambassador to Egypt, Ephraim Dubek, said in a radio interview Monday that the Egyptians are unlikely to free Ovitz until “they are convinced of his innocence.”

The Egyptian ambassador in Tel Aviv, Mohammed Basiouny, said “Ovitz will be released once the investigation is over and once he is proven innocent.”

Ovitz is not the only Israeli national imprisoned in Egypt. The others are three Israeli Arabs, members of the Mussarti family of Ramla.

Farres Mussarti, 41; his son, Majid, 21; and his 17-year-odl daughter, Faya, were arrested around Feb. 1 while traveling in Egypt and are awaiting trial for espionage.

Farres Mussarti reportedly confessed, implicating Ovitz, who is known to have employed him as an interpreter on furniture-buying trips to Egypt.

Interviewed in his cell by an Israeli journalist, Ovitz insisted the Egyptians have “nothing against me.” He is confined to a small cell, stinking of urine, with no idea what will happen to him, the journalist reported.

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