High-level Israeli-Libyan talks reported

But officials on both sides deny warming relations

January 08, 2004|By KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

JERUSALEM - One of Israel's most feared enemies, Libya, is showing a sudden change of heart, opening the door to economic ties and even offering compensation to Jews who lost property in the once rabidly anti-Israel North African nation, Israeli media reported yesterday.

Israeli newspapers reported that Israeli officials had at least two meetings - one involving a senior Israeli diplomat last month in Paris. An earlier meeting reportedly took place in Athens, Greece, between two Israeli lawmakers and Saif Salam Kadafi, the son of Libyan leader Col. Muammar el Kadafi, who's expected to succeed his father.

If the overtures lead to a normalizing of relations, as the reports suggested, Libya would be the third such Arab nation to recognize Israel, after Egypt and Jordan. That would be especially significant because Israel considers Libya, which once was home to Palestinian militant training camps, one of its most dangerous enemies, along with Iran and Syria.

Libyan officials denied reports of the high-level contacts, and Israelis balked at announcing a warming of relations.

Analysts concluded that the extraordinary moves of Libya's unpredictable leader were aimed at impressing the United States. They cautioned that expectations of impending diplomatic ties were premature.

"It certainly doesn't hurt [Kadafi's] image," said Bruce Maddy-Weitzman, a Libya expert at Tel Aviv University, "but I don't see anything significant developing as long as the Israeli-Palestinian tract is at an impasse."

Israel's largest daily newspaper, Yedioth Ahronoth, quoted government sources as saying the elder Kadafi had signaled his willingness to allow Libyan Jews to emigrate to Israel. He also proposed compensating Jews who had emigrated for property confiscated from them.

"Kadafi has made a strategic decision to open his country to the new world, and the meeting with his son" last August was the first step, Ephraim Sneh, one of the lawmakers who claimed to have met with Saif Salam Kadafi, told Israeli television yesterday.

An Israeli official who spoke on condition of anonymity dismissed yesterday's reports as "far-reaching and exaggerated."

Libyan Foreign Ministry spokesman Hassouna al Shawish denied any meeting with Israelis, according to official Libyan news agency JANA.

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