Israeli-Libyan Exchange Turns Into Political Fiasco

Many see tour as Libya's attempt to break UN-imposed embargoes

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

A VISIT by 192 Libyan pilgrims to Jerusalem that was supposed to herald a rapprochement between Israel and Libya turned into a political fiasco for Israel June 1 after the Libyan delegation called on Muslims "all over the world to liberate Jerusalem and make it the capital of the Palestinian state." The pilgrims then announced they would leave a day early.

Libyan Jewish leaders, who have spent the last two years trying to organize the rapprochement, expressed concern that the diplomatic controversy could jeopardize further Israeli-Libyan exchanges.

The rift also fueled the suspicions of right-wing Israelis, who saw the tour as an attempt by Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi to break an arms and travel embargo imposed by the United Nations in 1991. Hitting a sour note

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The Libyan visit marked the first time in Israel's 45-year history that a formal delegation of Muslim pilgrims has come to visit the Jewish state.

Not even Egypt, which has maintained a peace treaty with Israel for the past 15 years, has sent groups of Muslim pilgrims to Jerusalem, worried that such a move could imply tacit recognition of Israeli sovereignty over Muslim and Jewish holy sites in Jerusalem that were captured in the 1967 Arab-Israeli conflict.

The surprise visit began May 31 with an official reception by Israeli Tourism Minister Uzi Baram and Foreign Ministry officials who welcomed the visit as evidence of new moderation by Colonel Qaddafi toward Israel and the West.

But the high-profile, four-day tour apparently went sour after the leader of the Libyan delegation, Dahub Tajari, took umbrage at disparaging comments from Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Yossi Beilin about Libya, and his treatment on a popular evening Israeli television show May 31.

In a June 1 press conference, Mr. Tajari declared that "Israel is not a state with a border but the name of a prophet," and expressed sympathy for "the Palestinian deportees [expelled by Israel last December on charges of terrorism], the stone throwers [in the Israeli-occupied territories], and the struggle to liberate Jerusalem."

Previously, the pilgrims, mostly simple farmers and Bedouins, had refused to discuss politics.

Tourism Minister Baram immediately announced that his government office was ending its sponsorship of the pilgrimage, which had been billed as a strictly religious visit to Jerusalem's Al-Aqsa Mosque, Islam's third most holy site.

The pilgrimage was to be followed by a July 15 "reconciliation" visit to Libya by a delegation of Libyan-born Israeli Jews and by a Christian-Muslim-Jewish "trialogue" in Tripoli in October, according to Rafael Fellah, president of the World Association of Libyan Jews and a key player in the rapprochement.

Following the press conference, however, right-wing Israeli politicians were calling for the Libyan pilgrims to be deported.

Deputy Foreign Minister Beilin said he would not recommend that Israelis undertake the planned visits to Libya: "Israel doesn't have to be the country to give legitimization to Libya; we don't have to be the experiment."

Mr. Fellah said he believed the pilgrims made the unexpected declarations partly "because they were irritated" by the intense publicity. But it also appeared that pilgrims' moves were coordinated with Qaddafi, who initially sanctioned the visit.

Israeli analysts and officials speculated that the visit was a clever maneuver by Qaddafi to break the UN-imposed travel and air sanctions on his country and open up a channel of communication with the West.

The UN sanctions were imposed following the implication of two Libyan nationals in the 1988 bombing of a Pan Am jet over Lockerbie, Scotland, that killed all 270 people aboard.

Fellah met with the Libyan leader in February, as part of a series of Italian-mediated contacts between Libya and Israel, to pave the way for the Israeli-Libyan exchanges.

But others were also involved in organizing the trip. Yaacov Nimrodi, an Iraqi-born Israeli arms broker, organized the travel arrangements for the Libyan group together with Saudi business partner Adnan Khashoggi, as part of a business venture designed to bring even more Muslim groups to Jerusalem.

Both Mr. Nimrodi and Mr. Khashoggi were implicated in the Iran-Contra scandal in which the Reagan administration illegally diverted the proceeds of arms sales to Iran to US-backed rebels in Nicaragua. Libyan Jews' hopes

The Libyan pilgrims also were given an emotional reception by Libyan-born Israeli Jews, who expressed hope that the visit would end 40 years of estrangement from their home land.

"For me it is a very exciting day. We have been reunited in a way," said Libyan-born Israeli professor of International Affairs, Maurice Roumani after chatting and drinking coffee with the pilgrims on May 31 in his native Arabic. Roumani left Libya in 1950 during the mass emigration of the 40,000-member Jewish community.

The Libyan pilgrimage visit was quickly denounced the Palestine Liberation Organization in Tunis as an unwelcome sign of "normalization" of ties with Israel prior to the conclusion of the Middle East peace talks.

West Bank Palestinians, meanwhile, said that they believed the dispatch of Libyan pilgrims to Jerusalem was in fact a Qaddafi signal of displeasure with Saudi Arabia, which has refused to allow direct overflights of Libyan planes since the imposition of UN air sanctions.

That contention seemed to be bolstered by statements from the pilgrims themselves, who said that they had originally planned to make the annual Hajj pilgrimage to Islam's most holy site in the Saudi city of Mecca but were refused entrance by Saudi Arabia.

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