TEL AVIV // Israel approved a prisoner swap yesterday with Egypt's military government involving an Israeli-American law student held by Egyptian authorities on suspicion of espionage since June, in exchange for 25 Egyptian prisoners.
The exchange was the latest sign of easing strains between Israel and Egypt's new regime since Israel killed five Egyptian soldiers in August and Egyptian protesters stormed the Israeli embassy in Cairo last month.
The swap was approved by the Israeli security cabinet and was likely to take place tomorrow. There would be a 48-hour period in which the Israeli public could object to the deal - a legal requirement ahead of any prisoner swap, but which was not expected to halt the exchange.
The approval has come just a week after an Egyptian-brokered landmark agreement between Israel and Hamas to free 1,027 Palestinian prisoners for the captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit. That accord was also a step viewed as ameliorating ties between Israel and Egypt, the latter of which was widely credited for bringing the two parties to an agreement.
Ilan Grapel, 27, a US-Israeli dual national and former Israeli paratrooper, was arrested in Cairo in June on suspicions of trying to recruit agents and monitor events during February's protests in Egypt, which toppled Hosni Mubarak - a longtime ally of both Israel and the US - from the presidency. Mr Grapel has not been officially charged.
An Israeli government statement late on Monday said Mr Grapel would be exchanged for 25 Egyptian inmates, including three minors, who have not been charged with security-related offences. However, Egyptian media yesterday reported that some of the prisoners had faced charges related to Israel's security. According to Israel's Haaretz newspaper, most of the inmates were drugs and weapons smugglers who operated on the porous border between Israel and Egypt.
On Monday, Avigdor Lieberman, Israel's far-right foreign minister, who has had strained ties with Egypt since becoming the country's top diplomat in 2009, denied Mr Grapel had any involvement in espionage.
Yesterday, Israeli media publicised a photo taken this week of a smiling Mr Grapel, wearing jeans and a buttoned-up shirt, seated with Yitzhak Molcho, a special envoy of the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, and an Israeli legislator who visited Cairo to finalise the deal. Some Israeli media speculated the photo may have been circulated ahead of the agreement's approval by the cabinet to show that Mr Grapel was in a healthy state and had not been mistreated.
Mr Grapel immigrated to Israel from New York in 2005 and joined the military, serving during Israel's 34-day war with Lebanon's Hizbollah group in mid-2006. His parents have insisted their son was innocent and said he had been working for St Andrews Refugee Services, a non-governmental organisation in Cairo, during the uprising.
The agreement between Israel and Egypt also reflected US efforts to patch up frayed relations between its two key Middle East allies, which signed a historic peace agreement in 1979. During a visit to the Middle East in early October, Leon Panetta, the US defence secretary, had called on Egypt to release Mr Grapel.
Israel's release of prisoners - both with the Hamas pact and the Egypt accord - has prompted the Palestinian Authority to demand the release of the more than 4,000 Palestinian inmates still held in Israeli jails.
Some commentators say the demand by the Palestinian Authority was a bid to restore the public support lost by Fatah to Hamas after the surprise "thousand-to-one" prisoner swap last week.
Haaretz cited unidentified Palestinian Authority officials yesterday as saying that Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian Authority president, planned to ask the Middle East Quartet of international mediators - including the US, European Union, United Nations and Russia - to pressure Israel to free more prisoners.
Among the prisoners that Fatah wants freed were Marwan Barghouti, a charismatic leader of the movement, serving five life terms, and Ahmed Saadat, convicted of plotting the killing of an Israeli cabinet minister in 2001.