Prisoner-spy swap warms Israeli-Egyptian relations |

Prisoner-spy swap warms Israeli-Egyptian relations

Associated Press

CAIRO, Egypt – In a series of dramatic steps capped Sunday by a high-profile prisoner swap, Israel and Egypt are moving rapidly to improve relations, seizing the opportunity for a Middle East peace deal presented by Yasser Arafat’s death.

A year ago, Egypt’s president dismissed Israel’s prime minister as incapable of making peace. Today, he calls Ariel Sharon the region’s best chance for an end to hostilities. The change in attitude is also apparent in Syria and across the Gulf, as Arab nations signal they are ready to work with Sharon, a man they long have described as a butcher.

But it was Sunday’s Israeli-Egyptian prisoner swap that provided the most striking example.

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s decision to release Azzam Azzam, an Israeli Arab convicted of spying for Israel, in exchange for six Egyptian students held by Israel reversed his government’s long-standing policy – and eliminated a central point of friction between the two countries over the past eight years.

Israel may also release Palestinian prisoners in the future, Sharon said.

Egyptian officials had accused Azzam of providing Israel with secrets about Egyptian factories – by giving women’s undergarments soaked in invisible ink to an Egyptian accomplice, who was said to have used the ink to pass on the information.

The six freed Egyptian students had sneaked into Israel in August and were arrested on suspicion they tried to kidnap soldiers and commandeer a tank.

The transfer took place at the Taba crossing between the two countries.

In the past month, Egypt also has made overtures toward returning its ambassador to Tel Aviv, four years after it summoned the ambassador home to protest what it called excessive Israeli force toward Palestinians.

Relations between Israel and Egypt, the first Arab nation to recognize the Jewish state in 1979, have been particularly cold during Sharon’s tenure and during the past four years of Palestinian-Israeli violence.

The recent warming appears to be a way to prepare the political ground – and the Arab and Egyptian public – for Israeli-Egyptian cooperation toward a broader peace.

Syria also has indicated a fresh willingness to negotiate a peace deal with Israel, and the Bahraini foreign minister said recently that peace was within reach.