REPORTING FROM JERUSALEM -- A week after the dramatic deal that freed Israel soldier Gilad Shalit in exchange for hundreds of Palestinian prisoners, a more low-key swap took place Thursday between Israel and Egypt.
Ilan Grapel, a 27-year-old Israeli American held by Egypt on espionage charges, was freed and flown to Israel on a private plane, escorted by an Israeli lawmaker and an envoy for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
In exchange, 25 Egyptian citizens, most Bedouin residents of Sinai and many charged with smuggling, were released from Israeli jails. The prisoners, including three minors, were taken to the Taba border crossing with Egypt, where they were met by their families and Sinai officials.
Grapel, a New York born law student who also holds Israeli citizenship and served in the Israeli military, was arrested in Egypt in mid-June. He was accused of spying for Israel and stirring sectarian trouble in Egypt, though he had not faced trial.
His mother, Irene Grapel, was waiting at an Israeli airport to meet her son before he was taken to Jerusalem for a short meeting with Netanyahu. U.S. Ambassador Daniel B. Shapiro was also present at the airport.
Grapel is scheduled to fly back to the United States on Friday to reunite with the rest of his family.
Charges that Grapel was a spy were widely dismissed by Israeli politicians. Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman said Grapel had no connection with any intelligence agency, "not in Israel, not on Mars."
The successful Egyptian brokering of the Shalit deal between Israel and Hamas, preceded by an Israeli apology for the killing of Egyptian soldiers in an incident this summer, eased what had been troubled relationships between the two nations and helped resolve the Grapel case.
The next test of cooperation between the two countries may come soon and concern another Israeli citizen jailed in Egypt. Oudeh Tarabin, a Bedouin from the town of Rahat in southern Israel, was 19 when he crossed the border into Sinai without travel papers to visit his sister in the town of el-Arish. Charged with spying for Israel, he has spent the last 11 years in jail.
His family is bitterly disappointed that he remains in custody. They have been advised to keep a low media profile, suggesting another deal is not far behind.
Some in Israel criticized the Grapel exchange, saying the country's willingness to release prisoners from its jails makes a mockery of the Israeli legal system and exposes Israel to extortion.
Unlike Shalit, Grapel was held in a country with diplomatic relations with Israel, noted lawmaker Aryeh Eldad in a radio interview this week. He warned that any country with a grudge could pick up Israeli citizens and make demands in exchange for their release.
So far, the Israeli Supreme Court has not ruled in favor of petitions against similar deals.
-- Batsheva Sobelman
Photo: Freed Egyptian prisoners react following their release from Israeli jails as part of a prisoners exchange deal between Egypt and Israel on Thursday. Credit: European PressPhoto Agency