In signs of a potential thaw in relations between Israel and one of its historic enemies, Libyan and Israeli officials have held at least two meetings, one involving a high-ranking Israeli diplomat last month in Europe, Israeli media reported Wednesday.
The other meeting, which took place several months ago, included an Israeli lawmaker from the ruling coalition and Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi’s son, the lawmaker said.
Libya denied any meetings took place.
Once a pariah in the West, Gadhafi has worked to remake his image in recent years, toning down his anti-Israeli rhetoric and trying to build a reputation as an African statesman.
Last month, he abruptly renounced efforts to build weapons of mass destruction and opened his country’s arms production facilities to international inspection. That move was widely seen as linked to new pressures in the region following the U.S.-led war in Iraq.
Two meetings reported
Israeli newspapers reported Wednesday that Ron Prosor, a senior aide to Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom, met with Libyan officials in Paris on Dec. 23. Earlier, Israel TV and Channel Two TV reported Prosor met with Libyan officials in Vienna on Dec. 26, and that the talks might lead to a visit to Libya by an Israeli delegation.
The Yediot Ahronot daily said Libya has expressed an interest in opening business and commercial contacts with Israel, without obligating itself to establishing diplomatic relations.
“It’s still a very long way down the road before Israel and Libya can establish diplomatic relations,” the Foreign Ministry said. “The Libyan leader has to demonstrate in action that he is headed toward real negotiation.”
The Foreign Ministry statement said Shalom would take advantage of every opportunity to improve Israel’s relations with Arab countries and said media reports on the possible Libya contacts were “causing Israel damage” and getting in the way of that goal.
Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Jonathan Peled would not comment on the reports of the meeting, but said Prosor accompanied Shalom on a visit to Europe in late December.
In Libya, Foreign Ministry spokesman Hassouna al-Shawish denied any meeting with Israeli officials, according to the official Libyan news agency JANA.
“We would like to assert that officials in Libya have investigated this issue and have not found any evidence of it,” al-Shawish said, according to JANA.
Peace moves with Libya would be a significant achievement for Israel.
Peace treaties with its neighbors, Egypt and Jordan, and the ouster of Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq have ended many of the international threats against Israel. Many Arab nations — from Morocco to Gulf states — have informal or low-level ties to the Jewish state. Only Syria, Iran and, to a lesser extent, Libya remain as pressing international threats.
Ilan Shalgi of the Shinui Party, part of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s governing coalition, said Wednesday that he and Ephraim Sneh, a lawmaker from the opposition Labor Party, met with Saif Ali Salam Gadhafi in an undisclosed European capital in August.
Shalgi said 10 people took part in the meeting, including a number of Palestinians, whom he declined to name.
Discussion of Israeli-Palestinian conflict
Israeli-Libyan relations were not discussed at the meeting, Shalgi said. He said the talks revolved around possible solutions to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, with Gadhafi’s son proposing that Israelis and Palestinians live together peacefully in a single state.
Both the Israeli and Palestinian participants rejected this approach, in favor of a two-state solution to their conflict, Shalgi said.
“(Saif) Gadhafi impressed me very much,” he said. “He is a very serious man, speaks excellent English and has considerable self-confidence.”
The younger Gadhafi is widely regarded as the leading candidate to succeed his father.