The Egyptian opportunity

The Egyptian opportunity

Let’s be frank; last week’s prisoner swap, which set free Israeli army Sgt. Gilad Shalit in exchange for more than 1,000 prison-hardened Palestinians will not create an opportunity for peace.
That, of course, is because the side that held Shalit — Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip — is opposed to peace with Israel, under any and all circumstances.
But this week’s deal with Egypt, which freed a dual U.S.-Israeli citizen in return for 25 Egyptian prisoners in Israeli jails, may be an entirely different story.
Israeli-Egyptian relations have never been colder. If this deal can lead to a thawing of relations, Israel should pursue it — fast.
In a statement Monday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office said 25 Egyptian prisoners would be exchanged for Ilan Grapel, who was arrested in Cairo June 12 and has been held without charge since.
Egyptian officials suspected the 27-year-old Grapel of spying for Israel during the height of the uprising that toppled former President Hosni Mubarak. Israel always denied Grapel was a spy.
Of course, Egypt may know very well that Grapel is innocent of espionage allegations, but took him anyway as a bargaining chip. In fact, likely that’s what did happen.
But this week’s exchange, coupled with the role Egypt played in freeing Shalit, may present an opportunity to restore Israeli-Egyptian relations. If so, it’s an opportunity Netanyahu dares not let pass.
Israel hasn’t been this isolated in the Middle East since the Six-Day War. Not only are Islamist groups surging in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya, where the Arab Spring has taken root, Turkey has dropped its diplomatic ties to the lowest possible level, recalling its ambassador and not accepting the credentials of Israel’s newly appointed emissary.
In Egypt, thousands in the streets, including the Islamic Brotherhood, which before long may control the balance of power in that country, are calling for an end to the Camp David Peace Treaty.
All of which creates major security problems for Israel. Its border with Sinai is porous, and a new wave of terrorist attacks in that region is not out of the question.
But maybe, just maybe, Egypt is looking for an honorable way back to normal relations with Israel, knowing that breaking ties with the Jewish state could mean the end of U.S. military assistance. Egyptian leaders watch the news; they know all the leading candidates for president in 2012 are staunch supporters of Israel’s existence (and, yes, that means President Obama too, all rhetoric to the contrary).
So where the Hamas deal may have been about freeing hardened terrorists anxious to resume their attacks on Israel (as far as Hamas is concerned), the Egyptian exchange may give the current government there the diplomatic cover it needs to restore relations.
Or … not.
Either way, it behooves Israel to find out. Here’s hoping behind the scenes diplomatic efforts are under way right now.