TEL AVIV (Dec. 5)
In the Middle East, nothing signals rapprochement quite like a prisoner release. So when Azzam Azzam returned to Israel on Sunday after Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak reduced his 15-year jail sentence for espionage by half, he brought with him a new sense of diplomatic goodwill that Prime Minister Ariel Sharon hopes will last through next year’s Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip.
“I feel like I’ve been born anew,” Azzam, 41, shouted to reporters as he was driven across the border to Eilat, and on to his hometown of Marar in Israel’s Galilee.
In return, Israel freed six Egyptian students who were caught sneaking into Israel from the Sinai last August and accused of planning to kill soldiers and rob a bank.
“This humanitarian gesture will contribute to strengthening relations between Egypt and Israel,” a statement from Sharon’s office quoted him telling Mubarak.
According to Jerusalem officials, the prisoner swap was agreed upon during a visit last week by Egypt’s intelligence chief, Omar Suleiman, who has been a key power-broker during the last four years of Israeli-Palestinian fighting.
As the first Arab nation to recognize Israel under the 1979 Camp David peace treaty, Egypt has been particularly uneasy about the stalled international efforts to achieve Palestinian statehood in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
After Sharon announced his plan to quit Gaza by the end of next year, Egypt offered to supply advisers to ensure Hamas and fellow Islamist groups do not take over the coastal strip and destabilize the entire region. After Yasser Arafat died last month, Egypt won Palestinian sympathy by hosting his state funeral.
“Releasing Azzam is Mubarak’s way of showing he is serious about being a key Israeli ally for settling the Palestinian issue now that Arafat is gone,” one Israeli official told JTA.
That might be cold comfort for Azzam, who spent the last eight years in a nine-square-foot Egyptian prison cell while insisting on his innocence.
A Druse textile merchant, Azzam was arrested while on a business trip to Egypt in November 1996 and accused of industrial espionage. Prosecutors said he tried to pass the Mossad classified information imprinted in women’s underwear in invisible ink. Israel denied the allegation.
“As I said then — not publicly, but to Mubarak — Azzam Azzam had nothing to do with the Mossad or any other intelligence or security agency,” former Mossad chief Danny Yatom told Israel Radio.
Refusing to back down from its charges, Egypt said it released him out of consideration for his poor health.
There are still many issues to work out before Israeli-Egyptian ties become more than just a cold peace.
Egypt, which withdrew its ambassador from Tel Aviv in solidarity with the Palestinian armed uprising launched in September 2000, has yet to return the diplomat, although the director general of Israel’s Foreign Ministry, Ron Prushor, told Israel Radio on Sunday morning that Egypt is likely to return its ambassador to Israel in the near future.
And despite the more than three decades that have passed since there was open conflict between the two countries, Israel remains deeply suspicious of Egyptian offers to station troops along their demilitarized border in order to stop arms smuggling to Palestinian terrorist groups in Gaza.
“There are important things that still must change,” said the chairman of the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense committee, Yuval Steinitz. “Arms smuggling from the Sinai, incitement on Egyptian television, and Egypt’s military buildup under a doctrine of a future conflict with Israel — all this must change.”