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U.S. Prisoner Unsung Player in Shalit Affair

It seems likely that Egypt bargained Israeli-American away as well

Marc Tracy
October 12, 2011
(Fatakat/Forecast Highs)
(Fatakat/Forecast Highs)

Gilad Shalit, 25, is a Jewish former Israeli soldier who was captured by Hamas more than five years ago and stored away somewhere in Gaza. Ilan Grapel, 27, is a Jewish former Israeli soldier now attending Emory Law School who a few months ago was arrested by Egypt under dubious charges of being an Israeli spy and stored away in a jail in Cairo; to this day, no indictment has been served against him. Yesterday, Prime Minister Netanyahu announced to the world that, thanks to Egypt’s mediation, Hamas has agreed to release Shalit in exchange for the liberation of more than 1,000 Palestinians, many of them accused terrorists, currently languishing in Israeli jails. Much more quietly, it has been reported (scroll down to the second-to-last paragraph) that Grapel, too, is being freed as part of the deal. So Israel is getting more than it bargained for … unless it is getting exactly what it bargained for.

There is something fishy going on here. And it involves an American citizen.

Grapel has been detained for nearly four months. Because he entered Egypt with his American passport (he has dual U.S.-Israeli citizenship; his father is Israeli), he is under U.S. jurisdiction and is the United States’ responsibility. Duly, he was able to meet with U.S. diplomats. And only last week, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta (previously head of the Mossad’s U.S. counterpart, the CIA) visited Cairo in part for the express purpose of seeking Grapel’s freedom.

Here is where it gets interesting. Panetta failed, but he was in Cairo—we now know—either at the same time or mere days before Israeli negotiator David Meidan—a former Mossad senior officer (who therefore must have worked with Panetta before) who was Israel’s Shalit pointman—and Hamas officials were also in Cairo. They were negotiating not with the usual German mediation but with Egyptian mediation. Flash forward to yesterday morning, when reports appeared that Egypt was now raising the stakes vis-à-vis Grapel: extending his prison stay yet again and still without an indictment, accusing him of throwing fire bombs at Egypt’s Interior Ministry building, and—wait for it—demanding the release of 78 Egyptian prisoners in Israeli jails in exchange for his freedom. That was yesterday morning; by yesterday evening, Grapel was quietly freed under the backdrop of the Shalit deal.

This is all speculation, but doesn’t it seem possible that Grapel was held by Hamas and Egypt as a further bargaining chip, one who, all importantly, caught the attention not only of the Israelis but of the Americans? Actually, we almost know for a fact that Grapel was part of the bargaining, because otherwise there would be little reason to let Grapel go as part of the Shalit deal (the other explanation could be that Egypt wanted to bury the news of the release to save themselves the embarrassment, but that is a pretty contrived explanation). This would also explain the sudden burst of activity on the Grapel front yesterday morning, followed by the reversal yesterday evening: it could have been the Egyptians upping their leverage on the Americans so that the Americans would push the Israelis to strike a deal.

If Panetta were involved in the negotiating, then who else got what? The United States would like to see Hamas turn away from its alliance with Iran, which has never been less convenient seeing as it exists through Syria, where Hamas is headquartered, and Syria may well fundamentally change in the coming months. The United States might also be more eager than usual to see Hamas score this victory over its main rival, the Palestinian Authority (securing the release of one thousand Palestinians), given the recent goings-on at the United Nations.

If Grapel were a part of the deal, it would also suggest that Hamas got a far better deal than they would have gotten without Grapel, because they were able to exert additional bargaining power by appealing to the Americans. This seems plausible, too. We do know that previous negotiations put the number of prisoners exchanged in the 250-350 range, not the over 1,000 that will be released under this deal; on the other hand, in the earlier talks, many prominent figures who won’t be released, such as Marwan Barghouti, were on the table. Getting a look at the prisoners being released may tell us more. Are any of them based in Egypt rather than the Palestinian territories? Do any of them pledge allegiance more to the Brotherhood?

This entire episode occured, of course, in the context of the close ties Hamas has enjoyed with the post-Mubarak Egyptian government, which earlier this year helped negotiate the (failed) Hamas-Fatah reconciliation and which has been sympathetic to Hamas’ cousin organization, the Muslim Brotherhood. Did negotiations fail for almost five years and then succeed after only a few months not because of Shalit but because of Grapel? (Grapel was arrested about two weeks before the fifth anniversary of Shalit’s kidnapping.) Was Egypt less a mediator then merely a part of Hamas’ side?

Finally, this line of inquiry leads to a yet more tantalizing (if less consequential) one. Namely: is Grapel a spy? He has always seemed less Mossad and more particularly dumb Hitchcock protagonist, an idealistic bro who put photos of himself in Tahrir Square on his Facebook page and suddenly found himself caught up in intrigue he had nothing to do with (“he had a satellite phone like I’m an astronaut,” his father memorably put it). At the same time, if you are Egypt, why hold him so long? We may have our answer: according to Meidan, the top-secret negotiations have been ongoing for several months—which is to say, likely since before Grapel’s June arrest. Egypt may have arrested him and quickly realized that he was perfect leverage: someone they could both semi-plausibly accuse of spying for Israel (he had been an IDF paratrooper and had lied about being a journalist upon entry) and use to get the Americans involved. This is maybe what happened—probably, even.

But there is only one thing I feel I can state with confidence, and that is that there is something we have not yet been told.

Marc Tracy is a staff writer at The New Republic, and was previously a staff writer at Tablet. He tweets @marcatracy.