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Netanyahu says ties with Egypt will survive spy case

September 1, 1997

JERUSALEM (AP) _ Israeli-Egyptian relations will survive the spying conviction of an Israeli Arab in an Egyptian court, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Monday.

Azam Azam was convicted Sunday of spying for Israel and sentenced to 15 years, causing outrage in Israel and further straining relations between the two countries.

Netanyahu said Azam was innocent and called the verdict ``twisted.″

He also said he phoned Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and asked that Azam be pardoned.

Still, Netanyahu said relations with Egypt were not in serious trouble.

``The relations between Egypt and Israel are not at an all-time-low,″ Netanyahu told Israel radio. ``There have been ups and downs in the past. That is the nature of the peace we have.″

Azam, 35, a member of the Druze religious sect from Israel’s Galilee, was working as a mechanic at a joint Egyptian-Israeli textile factory in Cairo when he was arrested along with an Egyptian man.

The court said Azam gave an Egyptian accomplice women’s lingerie soaked in invisible ink to write communiques to Israel about Egyptian factories and Egypt’s treatment of its citizens who had dealings with Israel’s embassy in Cairo.

Netanyahu met with Azam’s family in his Jerusalem office late Monday and promised them he would ``act to return him as we act to return our prisoners.″

A brother, Wafa Azam, said Netanyahu had promised that ``Azam will not sit in jail ... even one year.″

Some Israeli analysts said the bizarre case would make it more difficult for Egypt to play its role as Mideast mediator.

Egypt was the first Arab country to make peace with Israel when it signed a treaty in 1979, although relations have often been cold and tense. Israel’s relations with the Arab world have grown increasingly frosty, and it will not sacrifice its ties with Egypt for the fate of one man, the Haaretz newspaper wrote in an editorial.

Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Aviv Shiron suggested that Israel would try to deal with the Azam case quietly.

``When we have a problem with a European country, we bring it up in diplomatic context, just as we are doing here,″ Shiron told The Associated Press.

Mubarak, however, cannot go against a court decision and public opinion, Haaretz said.

The newspaper noted that Azam was convicted by a state security court, an institution set up by Mubarak in the 1980s to fight Islamic militants. It said Mubarak was unlikely to issue a pardon because this would undermine the security courts.

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