Libyan pilgrims to Israel turn against their hosts

June 02, 1993|By Doug Struck | Doug Struck,Jerusalem Bureau

JERUSALEM -- Route this to the Department of Whose Idea Wuz This, Anyway.

The Israeli government trusts a couple of shadowy characters to deal with an erratic dictator, planning a publicity coup that will flout an international embargo and offend most of the Arab world by bringing Muslims to Israel.

It backfired. Surprise.

Yesterday, the 192 Libyan pilgrims welcomed with such fanfare in Israel the day before turned on their hosts. At a news conference, they called on "Muslims all over the world to contribute to the liberation of Jerusalem" from Israeli occupiers.

Jerusalem is "the capital of the Palestinian state," said Daw Salem Tajouri, the head of the Libyan delegation. Adding salt to the wound, he urged Jews to "drop the Zionist leadership."

The remarks caused an audible gulp among his Israeli hosts. Since the Libyan group arrived at Israel's border Monday morning, the Jewish state had been exuberantly promoting the visit as a diplomatic breakthrough and as proof of its tolerance of all religions.

Shortly after yesterday's news conference, the Israel Ministry of Tourism announced that "it is not interested in any connection" with the Libyans anymore. By day's end, the Libyan pilgrims had gotten the hint and announced they would cut in half their visit and leave Israel today.

It is one thing to permit a pilgrimage, "but this can't come at the expense of Israeli sovereignty," said Tourism Minister Uzi Baram, who had welcomed the Libyans at the border.

"It's unacceptable to us that they take advantage of this visit to express Libya's views," grumbled Deputy Foreign Minister Yossi Beilin.

The collapse of the visit promised a vigorous round of finger-pointing. It could be especially lively, since the origins of the delegation's visit are rather murky anyway.

When they arrived, looking somewhat bewildered, the Muslim pilgrims told reporters they had tried to fly to Saudi Arabia to worship at Mecca or Medina, the two holiest cities of Islam, but had been denied entry by the government. Instead, they said, they decided to come to Jerusalem to worship at Al-Aqsa Mosque, Islam's third-holiest shrine.

But then, two sometimes-furtive arms dealers announced that they were responsible for the visit, claiming to have spent three months talking with the Libyan leader, Col. Muammar el Kadafi, to convince him to permit the visit to Israel.

Both linked to Iran-contra

The two were Yaacov Nimrodi, an Iraqi-born Israeli, and Saudi businessman Adnan Khashoggi. Both were briefcase-deep in the Iran-contra affair, and their names have been linked to other shenanigans.

Libya's Colonel Kadafi has been one of Israel's harshest rhetorical foes, frequently summoning fire and brimstone to devour the Jewish state. He also has offended most of the rest of the world, and is now in the grip of an international boycott over his refusal to give up suspects in the 1988 bombing of the Pan Am jetliner over Lockerbie, Scotland.

But Israel was not picky about the details. It welcomed the Libyans with a festive breakfast Monday night when they arrived at the Gaza Strip after a three-day bus trip.

Israel has long sought recognition from Arab states, even one as internationally reviled as Libya. Israeli government ministers were gleefully whispering on Monday that the Libyan visit represented "near recognition," and even hinting that Colonel Kadafi himself may visit.

They also were touting the visit as proof Israel is fulfilling its promise of access for all religions to the holy sites in Jerusalem, captured by Israel in the 1967 war.

That astonished Palestinians living under Israeli occupation, most of whom have been barred from Jerusalem for two months because Israel has closed off the West Bank and Gaza Strip. A group of Palestinians confronted the Libyan visitors and argued with them when the Libyans went to the Old City yesterday.

They were preaching to the choir. The Libyans had applauded the remarks of their leader, Mr. Tajouri, who called earlier yesterday for the holy war to liberate Jerusalem.

At the news conference at the five-star hotel where the Libyan group was being lodged, he also denounced Saudi Arabia, the United States and the Christian world.

Knesset in uproar

His remarks prompted an uproar in the Knesset, the Israeli parliament, and that caused the prime minister's office to insist late yesterday that the group would not be expelled.

But they got the hint. Last night, the Libyans announced they would cut short their visit and leave Israel today. Not expelled, perhaps, but neither mourned.

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