Pilgrims visit with Gaddafi's blessing: Sarah Helm reports from Jerusalem on agonising among the left wing on its role in the pursuit of peace, and a sudden friendly gesture from Libya

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WHO WOULD have thought it would be Muammar Gaddafi first? Of all Israel's Arab enemies, none has spurned the 'Zionist entity' with such consistent venom as the Libyan leader. He does not even deign to take part in the peace talks.

But yesterday Mr Gaddafi made sudden gestures of peace. First, he allowed 200 Libyan pilgrims to visit Muslim holy sites in Israel and the occupied territories, handing a public relations coup to Israel and snubbing Palestinian leaders, who regard any unilateral Arab contact with Israel as betrayal.

Then he invited Libyan Jews, expelled in the 1960s, to make a return trip, letting it be known that he would like to come on a visit to Jerusalem himself - and perhaps even recognise the state.

And all with such style. The package was arranged by Adnan Khashoggi, the Saudi Arabian businessman, and Yaacov Nimrodi, the Iraqi-born Israeli businessman, whose financial dealings involved them in the Iran-Contra arms-for-hostages affair.

The day's events began with the arrival at an Egyptian-Israeli crossing near the Gaza Strip of a travel-weary group of Libyan pilgrims being met by the Israeli Minister of Tourism, Uzi Bar Am.

Publicly, Libya said the trip was 'just a religious pilgrimage' arranged because the group was barred from Mecca by Saudi Arabia, which is enforcing a United Nations air embargo against Libya, intended to make Tripoli co-operate with inquiries into the Lockerbie bombing. Saudi officials said, however, that thousands of Libyan pilgrims had made the pilgrimage by land or sea.

Mr Nimrodi then announced on behalf of Mr Gaddafi: 'The man plans and wants to come to visit the country after the pilgrims return happy with full hearts having fulfilled their obligation to God. His secretary told me Gaddafi intends to come and recognise the state of Israel and to visit. I believe Gaddafi will be in this country this year.'

One of the Libyan pilgrims, a tomato farmer, Farraj Ali, said they were all frightened as they approached the Israeli frontier. The only Israelis he had ever seen were on television - soldiers beating Palestinians while quelling riots in Gaza.