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As It Mediates Palestinian Chaos, Egypt Also Accuses Israel of Spying

Just as it was hoping for an Egyptian breakthrough on the Palestinian front, Israel finds itself embroiled in spy allegations from Cairo.

Egyptian prosecutors announced over the weekend that they had charged a local man with spying for the Jewish state. Like past Egyptian allegations of Israeli spying, this one could well turn out to be a fabrication for domestic consumption, intended to prove that Egypt — despite a 30-year-old peace treaty with Israel — is no friend of the Jewish state.

According to the indictment, the main suspect, Mohammed al-Attar, was recruited by Israeli agents in Turkey in 2001 and spied on Egyptians and other Arabs there. He later immigrated to Canada, where the Egyptian prosecutors said he continued gathering intelligence for Israel.

Israel denied knowledge of the affair.

“We only know what we have heard in the media,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev said.

Egypt’s state security prosecutor charged Attar and three Israelis with spying. Attar, who also holds Canadian citizenship, is under arrest, while warrants have been issued for the Israelis. Egypt’s state news agency, MENA, identified them as Daniel Levi, Kemal Kosba and Tuncay Bubay. Kosba and Bubay also hold dual Turkish citizenship, MENA said.

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, when speaking about Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts after hosting German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Saturday, did not mention the spy allegations.

Mubarak did note the chaos in the Gaza Strip, where dozens of people have died in recent fighting between Palestinian factions, and said the Palestinian Authority must get its house in order before it can hope to establish neighborly ties with Israel.

On Sunday, Hamas and Fatah tried yet again to implement a cease-fire after violence that flared late last week left at least 27 people dead.

“What is happening now is an intra-Palestinian problem, and the Palestinian side cannot sit with the Israeli side while they have internal differences,” Mubarak said.

The Egyptian leader further called on Palestinian gunmen who abducted an Israeli soldier, Cpl. Gilad Shalit, last year to release him as part of rapprochement efforts.

Hamas, the terrorist group that runs the Palestinian Authority Cabinet and legislature, has the final say on Shalit’s fate. Mubarak’s comments suggested that his sympathies are with the rival Fatah faction of P.A. President Mahmoud Abbas.

There’s good reason for this: Hamas is an offshoot of Egypt’s fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood, which represents the most serious domestic challenge to Mubarak’s iron rule. He has an interest in seeing Hamas fall before the more moderate Fatah.

So while Cairo has openly called for a “national unity” government between Hamas and Fatah that might soften the Western aid embargo on the Palestinian Authority, independent analysts believe that behind the scenes Egypt is supplying Abbas’ security forces with arms and money at the request of Israel and the United States.

Indeed, the most recent Gaza flare-up was sparked by Hamas’ efforts to stop such deliveries to its rivals.

Last Friday, Hamas gunmen ambushed a convoy of trucks that they said was bringing military equipment to Fatah forces. Six people were killed in that clash. The convoy originated in Kerem Shalom, a crossing on Gaza’s border with Israel and just a stone’s throw from Egypt.

“The Egyptians are key players in the efforts to offset Hamas’ power,” an Israeli security source said without elaborating.

That also may help explain the alleged spy scandal.

The campaign to support Fatah “does not enjoy popularity in Egyptian society, which is religious and conservative,” wrote Jacky Hugi, Arab Affairs correspondent for Israel’s Ma’ariv newspaper. “The government would do well to prove that it is also capable of dealing with the ‘true enemies’ of the nation. There is nothing like the lovely discovery of an Israeli spy ring to prove that everyone is equal before the law.”

“Such a discovery even covers up, slightly, Egyptian disappointment with the Palestinian channel,” he added.

But at least one Israeli saw a more visceral reason for the indictment — continuing anti-Zionist sentiment.

Azzam Azzam, a Druse textile merchant who spent eight years in an Egyptian jail on espionage charges that appear to have been groundless, told Army Radio: “It was obvious to me that the moment people in Cairo found a window of opportunity, they would frame other Israelis.”

Asked what motivated the charges, Azzam said he had no doubt: “Egyptian hatred of the State of Israel and its inhabitants.”

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