Conviction of Israeli Druse Strains Relations with Egypt

The conviction of an Israeli Druse by an Egyptian court has strained already chilly Israeli-Egyptian relations.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Monday he expected Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to pardon the 35-year-old Druse man, who was convicted of spying for Israel.

“I told him that we expect him to find a way to pardon or release Azam Azam and bring him back to Israel,” Netanyahu, who spoke with Mubarak on Sunday, told Israel Radio.

Azam, a mechanic at an Israeli-Egyptian textile plant in Cairo, was convicted Sunday of espionage and sentenced to 15 years in prison with hard labor.

Two Israeli Arab women, Zahra Yousef Jreis and Mona Ahmed Shawahna, were given life sentences in absentia. The two were in Israel when the sentences were handed down.

An Egyptian national, Emad Abdel-Hamid Ismail, was also sentenced to life for being an accomplice.

Azam, who was arrested last November, was charged with giving women’s underwear soaked with invisible ink to Isamil, who then used the ink to write messages to Israel about the state of Egyptian factories.

Netanyahu called Sunday’s verdict “twisted.”

The prime minister said that in his conversation Sunday with Mubarak, the Egyptian leader expressed regret over the conviction.

But Netanyahu did not say whether Mubarak pledged to pardon Azam, who is the married father of four children.

Israeli officials have insisted that Azam was not a government agent.

His arrest last year in Cairo and his trial, which began in April, have created tension between Israel and Egypt.

Despite the guilty verdict, Netanyahu said Israeli-Egyptian relations were not in crisis.

“The relations between Egypt and Israel are not at an all-time- low,” he said. “There have been ups-and-downs in the past. That is the nature of the peace we have.”

Netanyahu met Monday with family members of Azam and assured them he would not rest until Azam was freed.

But family members came away from the meeting dissatisfied.

“Until now, all we have heard are words and promises to release Azam. What we need now is action, and we believe that will be when Azam is freed,” Azam’s brother, Sami, told Israel Radio. “We will not let the prime minister rest until Azam comes home.”

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