Panetta visiting Egypt amid spy suspense

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CAIRO: Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, America’s former top spymaster, is meeting with Egyptian leaders to urge them to release a US-born man being held for allegedly being an Israeli spy.

Egypt has accused Ilan Grapel, 27, of being a Mossad agent — a claim Israel denies. And his detention since June has escalated criticism of Egypt’s military, which took over rule of the country after the ouster of Hosni Mubarak in February.

The military has pledged to hold presidential elections soon, and Panetta said he will press Egyptian leaders to move to the elections and quickly put a civilian government in place.

It is considered unlikely by some officials that Egypt would choose Panetta’s visit as the time to release Grapel, who has been held since June 12. But Panetta would not totally close the door Tuesday when asked about the issue.

"There’s really nothing I can say about the specifics of that," Panetta, the former CIA director, told reporters at a news conference in Tel Aviv, where he met with Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak. "We have made our concerns known to Egypt about holding that individual and we would hope that … they will take steps to release that individual."

Grapel is a dual US-Israeli citizen who said he was working for a Cairo legal aid project when he was arrested. Published reports have suggested that he is ill and that Egypt’s government was responding to appeals for his release. But there have been no specific promises, nor any public suggestion his release might be tied to Panetta’s visit in an effort to curry support from the US

Panetta’s stop in Egypt comes after a day of meetings with Israel and Palestinian leaders, as he traveled from Tel Aviv to the West Bank urging the two groups to resume peace talks.

On Monday, Barak — with prodding from Panetta — agreed that Israel must find a way to resume negotiations with the Palestinians and that it has a responsibility to try to ease tensions with its neighbors in the region.

Standing next to Panetta, Barak pushed back a bit on the Pentagon chief’s warning that Israel is becoming increasingly isolated in the region, threatening its security. Panetta urged Israeli leaders to repair frayed relations with its neighbors, including Egypt.

Panetta, however, offered no new thoughts on the thorny issues that have stymied the peace talks, including the proposed timetable and the contested settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

Making his first trip to Israel as defense secretary, Panetta pressed the Obama administration’s view that the two sides must restart the long-stalled peace talks. And during a news conference with Barak, Panetta said it’s time for bold action by both sides to move toward a negotiated two-state solution.

The visit comes amid new international pressure to reach a peace deal by the end of next year, fueled by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ move two weeks ago asking the UN Security Council to recognize an independent Palestinian state in the West Bank, east Jerusalem and Gaza Strip. Those areas were captured by Israel in the 1967 Mideast war.

Mideast negotiators — known as the Quartet — are urging the Israelis and Palestinians to produce comprehensive proposals on territory and security within three months. The Quartet — the United States, European Union, United Nations and Russia — is also urging both sides to avoid "provocative actions."

The administration opposes Abbas’ UN bid, and Panetta’s visit was clearly part of a broad campaign to avoid such a vote, and instead nudge the two sides back to the table.

After meeting Monday with Barak, Panetta traveled to the West Bank for a meeting with Abbas. He ended the day at a session with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Palestinian officials said privately they believe the Panetta visit was largely meant to show that despite differences of opinion, the US cares about and wants to maintain the relationship with the Palestinians.

Panetta also is scheduled to travel to Brussels for a meeting of NATO defense ministers to talk about the Afghanistan war and the military mission in Libya.

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