Israel, Egypt agree to prisoner swap
Israel and Egypt have reached a deal to swap 25 Egyptian prisoners in Israeli custody for U.S.-Israeli dual national Ilan Grapel, held by Egypt since June, a statement from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office said on Monday.
The U.S.-brokered deal was reached days after a successful Egyptian-brokered swap between Israel and Hamas Islamists that freed captive soldier Gilad Shalit in exchange for more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners.
It was subject to Israeli security cabinet approval widely expected to be issued at a session scheduled on Tuesday, the Israeli statement said.
Egyptian officials confirmed the agreement and a source in Cairo said the swap may take place this week. An Israeli official involved in the talks told Reuters the swap was expected to occur on Thursday once Israeli ministers give the go-ahead.
“In the framework of efforts by Israel and Egypt and with the help of the United States, Egypt has agreed to release Ilan Grapel. By Egyptian request Israel has agreed to free 25 Egyptian prisoners,” the official said.
Grapel, 27, was arrested in Egypt and accused of being a spy out to recruit agents and monitor events in the revolt that overthrew President Hosni Mubarak in February, an ally of both the United States and Israel.
Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman told reporters earlier on Monday he hoped Grapel “will be freed as soon as possible” and strongly denied he had been involved in any espionage.
Grapel’s mother said at the time of his arrest that her son, a law student in the United States, was working for Saint Andrew’s Refugee Services, a non-governmental organization, in Cairo.
Grapel emigrated to Israel in 2005 from New York and served in its military in a 2006 war with Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon.
Israel said in its statement that the Egyptian prisoners being freed for Grapel were not charged with security-related crimes, and included three minors, but that its agreement to free them was “subject to the approval of the security cabinet which will meet on Tuesday on this matter.”
U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta called on Egypt while on a visit to the region this month to release Grapel, but denied he was involved in direct negotiations over the matter.
The deal for Grapel may also ease strains in Israeli-Egyptian ties since summer when five Egyptian security personnel were killed during a cross-border shooting at the Israeli frontier in August, an incident in which eight Israelis were also killed by gunmen who ambushed a road.
Israel apologized to Egypt for the shootings earlier this month as Cairo had insisted, citing a joint investigation which showed Egyptian police had died “as a result of gunfire by our (Israeli) forces.”
Egypt was the first of two Arab countries to sign a peace agreement with Israel, in a deal concluded in 1979. Jordan signed a treaty with the Jewish state in 1994.
Additional reporting by Maha El Dahan and Marwa Awad in Cairo; Writing by Allyn Fisher-Ilan; Editing by Michael Roddy