Israel and Libya in secret talks to open relations

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There was excitement in Israel yesterday at reports that the country may be close to establishing diplomatic ties with Libya.

Israeli newspapers carried detailed reports of a Foreign Ministry initiative to open a dialogue with Libya, and a meeting in Paris last month between a senior Israeli diplomat and a Libyan representative.

Libya, which announced last month it was ending a programme to develop weapons of mass destruction, denied that its officials had held any meetings with Israelis. But an Israeli MP confirmed that he had met with the son of the Libyan leader, Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, last year. The Israeli Foreign Ministry tried to pour cold water on the reports, but did not deny them outright.

Israel has full diplomatic ties with only two Arab countries, Egypt and Jordan, and would dearly like to establish better relations around the region. Initial contacts with Morocco and some Arab Gulf states when the Oslo peace process began in the 1990s have been as stillborn as the peace process, leaving Israel largely frozen out of the region.

Reports in the daily newspapers Yedioth Ahronoth and Ha'aretz said Ron Prosor, a senior official at the Israeli Foreign Ministry, held a secret meeting in Paris on 23 December with Libyan representatives to open a channel for dialogue with Libya. Yedioth reported that unnamed "senior sources in Jerusalem" said: "We are receiving agreeable messages from Gaddafi, and we know from different sources that he has undergone a complete reversal in his attitude to Israel. However, we are continuing to examine his motives. It is clear to us that there will be a price to the 'gift' that Gaddafi is offering."

An official statement from the Israeli Foreign Ministry said: "It's still a very long way down the road before Israel and Libya can establish diplomatic relations. The Libyan leader has to demonstrate in action that he is headed toward real negotiation." The statement said that media reports of a diplomatic thaw were "causing Israel damage".

Sources in the office of the Israeli Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon, were quoted as saying that the Libya initiative "doesn't appear serious".

In Tripoli, theLibyan official news agency said Hassouna al-Shawish, a Libyan Foreign Ministry spokesman, denied any meetings had taken place. "We would like to assert that officials in Libya have investigated this issue and have not found any evidence of it," he said. "International relations are not built on intrigue."

Ephraim Sneh, an opposition Labour member of the Knesset, publicly confirmed that he met the Libyan leader's son and heir apparent, Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, last August. Dr Sneh said 10 people were present at the meeting, including some Palestinians. A second MP, Ilan Shalgi, from the Shinui Party, a member of the coalition government, confirmed he was at the meeting.

The discussions focussed on ways to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, not relations with Libya, but Dr Sneh said: "My impression from this meeting was that Gaddafi has made a strategic decision, and he is not a man of small steps ... He could go as far as relations with Israel, and beyond. My impression from speaking to Gaddafi the son ... is that they are beginning to tour the world, to examine this modern world that they wish to join."

In regional significance, Libya hardly compares with Egypt, the largest Arab country, and despite past hostility, has never been perceived as much of a threat. Many Israelis would welcome detente and want their country's existence to be recognised by all the countries of the region.

Libya, which has some oil wealth, would also offer some regional trade opportunities for Israel's battered economy. The attractions of detente for Libya are complicated. Its policies have been wildly unpredictable under Col Gaddafi. At one time he aspired to leadership of the Arab world; recently he has publicly despaired of Arab governments and sought to realign Libya with Africa, with little tangible result.

Libya has invested a lot of rhetoric in the Palestinian cause. But that didn't stop Col Gaddafi breaking the Arab boycott of Israel in 1993 and sending a party of Libyan Muslim pilgrims to the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem instead of performing the Hajj pilgirmage to Mecca when he fell out with Saudi authorities.