Bush Re-election May Have Helped Gain Release Of Israeli From Egyptian Prison, Analysts Say

By Julie Stahl | July 7, 2008 | 8:15 PM EDT

Jerusalem (CNSNews.com) - President Bush's re-election was one of the factors contributing to the decision of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to free an Israeli Arab convicted of spying from an Egyptian prison, analysts here said on Monday.

Israeli Druze businessman Azzam Azzam was freed from an Egyptian prison after eight years in a surprise move on Sunday. Azzam was convicted of espionage in 1997 and sentenced to 15 years hard labor in prison.

Azzam had been running a textile factory there and was accused of passing along state secrets by soaking women's panties in invisible ink.

Israel and Azzam denied that Azzam had ever been an agent, but Mubarak refused to budge for eight years on his behalf.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon thanked Mubarak for interceding on behalf of Azzam. According to a statement from Sharon's office, Mubarak said he had done it for Sharon.

Professor Efraim Inbar of the BESA Center for Strategic Studies said that part of the reason that Mubarak agreed to shorten Azzam's sentence was because he wanted to become more involved in the Israeli-Palestinian process.

Sharon had made it clear that Egypt would be locked out as long as Azzam remained incarcerated in an Egyptian prison.

"[It was] part of the Egyptian realization that it cannot ostracize Sharon if it wants to play a role [in the negotiating process]," Inbar said.

Sharon's plan to dismantle Israeli communities in the Gaza Strip, which borders Egypt, and withdraw Israeli troops from the area by next year has also opened the door for greater Israeli-Egyptian cooperation.

Israel has been pressing Egypt to exert more effort to stop Palestinians from smuggling weapons from the Sinai desert under the Israeli-Egyptian border into the Gaza Strip.

"We see Israel's willingness to allow a greater role in Gaza [and] Egypt's willingness to accept [that role]," Inbar said, especially after the twin terror attacks on Egyptian tourist sites frequented by Israelis in October.

Mubarak's willingness to release Azzam was also a result of President Bush being re-elected and the realization that the region will have to deal with him for another four years, Inbar said.

Bush has backed Israel's war against terrorism and the demand that Palestinians dismantle the terrorist infrastructure before any Israeli-Palestinian diplomatic process can be renewed.

Shlomo Gazit from the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies in Tel Aviv said Bush's re-election was just "one of many factors" that have to be born in mind for Mubarak's decision to release Azzam.

"What we see today is a number of Egyptian interests," Gazit said.

Following the death of PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat there was a greater opportunity for movement in the region, Gazit said.

There is the realization that there is a chance to move forward in the Middle East and the possibility to reach a compromise solution in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Egypt wants to play a central mediating role in those talks, he said.

In a visit with Azzam at his home in the village of Mughar on Monday, Sharon said that he hoped that this "success will lead to new openness in our relations with Egypt."

Sharon, who had pledged for years to bring Azzam home, said Azzam had brought "joy to all our hearts. It was not an easy thing to bring him here, but it was worth all the steps that it took."

Upon his return to the country, Azzam called Sharon and thanked him. "I have no words to thank you for your efforts. I am lucky to have been born in Israel, and I am proud of it," he said.

Thousands of family, friends and well-wishers waited for Azzam in his village and greeted him with fireworks, applause and shouts of joy when he returned to his home late Sunday night.

Azzam, a father of four, thanked those who had helped to obtain his release, particularly "the hero" Sharon. "Sharon took me out of the grave and brought me back to life," he said.

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