CAIRO — A state security court Sunday convicted an Israeli Arab of espionage and sentenced him to 15 years of hard labor in what appeared to be the most serious example yet of the deepening rift in relations between Israel and Egypt.
Azam Azam, a technician at a garment factory that was one of the few Israeli-Egyptian joint ventures in Egypt, had been accused in a plot to recruit an Egyptian textile worker as an economic spy for Israel. His fate is now in the hands of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, who, under Egypt's emergency laws, has the power to set aside the verdict against Azam, the first Israeli to be convicted of spying against Egypt.
"We appeal to President Hosni Mubarak to pardon him," said Azam's older brother, Sami.
Israeli officials immediately condemned the verdict and demanded Azam's release. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in a statement, called the ruling a very serious development.
"Azam Azam is innocent and should not sit in prison for even one day," the Israeli premier said.
Other Israeli officials echoed the sentiment. President Ezer Weizman said: "We all know well that Azam is no spy and that he is innocent. . . . The question is, what is going to happen now?" Foreign Minister David Levy said. "We are not going to rest until every effort is made to bring this innocent man home."
Although Egypt was the first Arab country to sign a peace treaty with Israel, relations have been in a spiral since the May 1996 election of Netanyahu, who Arabs believe has backtracked on Israel's commitments to the Palestinians under 1993 peace accords.
Azam has been in prison since November 1996, when he was arrested as he returned to his lodgings near Cairo's airport.
His detention coincided with the opening in Cairo last year of an important Middle East economic conference, and Azam's supporters and lawyer have suggested that the real reason for the case was to torpedo the then-budding commercial ties between the two countries and to discourage Egyptians from traveling to Israel for work.
According to Israel Radio, Netanyahu telephoned Mubarak on Sunday to express his surprise at the verdict and ask Mubarak to have Azam released. Mubarak reportedly expressed his sorrow that Azam had been found guilty.
During a visit to Egypt earlier this year, Netanyahu had already pressed for Azam's freedom. At the time, Mubarak said he could not intervene until the court rendered its verdict.
Azam, 35, belongs to the Druze religious sect that some Arabs accuse of collaborating with Israel. According to family members, he had come to Egypt a few months before his arrest because it was an opportunity to make money and to work alongside his older brother, who was managing the newly built textile factory in suburban Cairo.
Also convicted Sunday was Azam's Egyptian co-defendant, Emad Ismail, who prosecutors said had been romantically entrapped by two female Israeli agents into spying for Israel. Ismail and the women, the latter tried in absentia, were all given life sentences.
Ismail's lawyer said he plans to appeal. "This is not a final decision. We have a lot of hope," attorney Ahmed Bakr said.
Times staff writer Marjorie Miller in Jerusalem contributed to this report.