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Egypt spy trials sour links with Israel

June 28, 2011 at 3:02 PM   |   Comments

CAIRO, June 28 (UPI) -- The arrest of an Israeli-American on charges of spying for Israel has intensified fears in the Jewish state that the post-Mubarak regime in Cairo seeks to distance itself from the historic 1979 peace treaty between the two countries.

A 25-year prison sentenced imposed Thursday on an Egyptian businessman convicted of working for Israel's foreign intelligence service, the Mossad, has heightened the sense of unease in Israel about Egyptian intentions following the Feb. 11 fall of President Hosni Mubarak.

The Israeli-American, Ilan Grapel, was arrested in the Egyptian capital June 12 and accused of seeking to "sabotage the revolution" against Mubarak, a firm supporter of the 1979 treaty.

Grapel, a 27-year-old New Yorker, has denied the charges. His family says he's a third-year law student at Emory University in Atlanta.

Relations between Israel and Egypt have been tense since Mubarak was toppled and the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces took over the government until elections can be held.

These were scheduled for September, but the council says they may be postponed because of difficulties in political parties organizing along democratic lines.

Analysts don't believe Cairo will go so far as to abrogate the 1979 Camp David treaty, signed at the U.S. presidential retreat in Maryland -- at least not in the near term.

But Israel fears Egypt's Islamists, led by the Muslim Brotherhood, founded in 1928 and the godfather all radical Islamist groups, will become the dominant political force and confront the Jewish state.

The Brotherhood, although it has moderated its policies over the years, declared in April the Camp David accords "have lost all credibility" and run counter to the teachings of Islam.

Analysts suspect Salafist radicals are poised to emerge as a strong political force in elections, when they take place.

Cairo has already cut off supplies of natural gas to Israel and demanded it renegotiate a 2005 deal made with Mubarak that critics say involved below-market prices and lined the pockets of his sons and cronies.

Cairo also lifted its economic blockade of the Hamas-run Gaza Strip, imposed to aid Israel.

Israeli intelligence says weapons to fight the Jewish state are now flowing freely into the territory through the Sinai Peninsula.

Already, Cairo is making approaches to Iran, with whom Egypt broke off diplomatic relations in 1979 when the Shiite mullahs seized power.

The Israelis, the Americans and most Sunni Arab regimes see that as a potentially dangerous step at a time when the regional balance of power is in a state of flux.

"The bottom line is that the normalization of relations with Tehran is a question of political identity for Cairo and its new ruling elite, that is, the coming of age and maturity of Egypt as an independent actor on the regional and global scene," observed U.S.-based analyst Kaveh L. Afrasiabi.

However, U.S. President Barack Obama's administration, which abandoned longtime ally Mubarak when it was clear he was on the skids, is seeking to develop links with the new elite in Cairo.

The Pentagon said June 11 U.S. arms deals made with Mubarak's regime remain in place -- for now, anyway.

The 1979 pact has never been popular with Egypt's masses and was seen as a major source of public discontent.

But Mubarak and the military establishment supported it because it brought billions of dollars in aid from the United States for what was seen as a staunch Arab ally.

With the departure of Mubarak, Israel's strongest Arab ally, and his cronies, Cairo's policy toward Israel has become more attuned to domestic public opinion, resulting in episodes such as Grapel's arrest.

A recent poll by the U.S.-based Pew Research Center indicated more than half of Egypt's 80 million population wants the treaty annulled, while only 36 percent favor keeping it intact.

Egyptians and others were convicted of spying for Israel throughout Mubarak's autocratic rule, in what was seen by many as a means of keeping the lid on widespread distrust of the Jewish state that defeated Egypt four times on the battlefield.

"Mubarak's fall was seen by many as a great strategic loss for Israel and the United States and left many questions in the air regarding Egyptian-Israeli relations," observed Al Ahram, Egypt's leading daily.

© 2011 United Press International, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Any reproduction, republication, redistribution and/or modification of any UPI content is expressly prohibited without UPI's prior written consent.
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