Israeli-Libyan Exchange Turns into Political Fiasco Many See Tour as Libya's Attempt to Break UN-Imposed Embargoes

Article excerpt

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

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. …


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