Libya’s Khadafy opens up to Jewish refugees; what’s his motive?

In Libya, a land that at times has shown as little hospitality to Jews as its Sahara Desert does to travelers, a visiting Jewish delegation is getting the royal treatment.

A group of Libyan Jews who now live in Italy met with Moammar Khadafy in Tripoli this week to discuss compensation for the Libyan Jewish community, which was expelled from the North African country after the 1967 Six-Day War.

Six months after Libya indicated it would compensate Jews forced to flee the country, the government invited the Jewish group to forge ties and determine compensation for communal property left behind, said Stanley Urman, executive director of Justice for Jews from Arab Countries.

Khadafy welcomed the delegation with full honors, calling them “brothers of Libya,” said Leone Paserman, president of the Rome Jewish community and a participant on the trip.

Paserman called the visit “an important opening.”

“The Jewish community of Libya is one of the most ancient, with 2,300 years of history,” the Libyan ruler said. “I hope that the resumption of relations can lead to the restoration of some synagogues and the recovery of the traces that bear witness to a culture that marked the history of Libya.

Advocates have been fighting for the rights of an estimated 800,000 Jews who fled Arab countries in the wake of Israel’s creation in 1948. The visit to Libya is seen as a potentially precedent-setting step for other Arab countries, Jewish officials say.

Arab countries adamantly demand redress for Palestinian refugees who fled Israel in 1948, but only a few have acknowledged the issue of Jewish refugees as well.

The 1978 Camp David accord between Egypt and Israel referred vaguely to the “refugee problem,” without specifying Jews or Palestinians. A member of the Iraqi Governing Council reportedly said recently that the country would return properties stolen from Iraqi Jews.

But the Libyan effort at redress appears to be the most significant- and particularly striking, considering the source.

Khadafy’s son and likely successor, Seif Khadafy, may have something to do with the movement. He told CBS’ “60 Minutes” that Libya wants to be “the spearhead of all positive changes in the Middle East.”

According to a recent report in Israel’s Ma’ariv newspaper, Seif Khadafy welcomed Jews back to Libya, but did so in a way that was sure to raise questions.

“They are Libyans and are therefore entitled for compensation,” he said, according to Ma’ariv. “I call on the 30,000 Libyan Jews, including those in Israel, to come back to the land of their ancestors as citizens and leave the land they took from the Palestinians.”

While Jewish officials have welcomed Khadafy’s moves, they say many questions remain.

Khadafy is “trying to gain brownie points in America,” said Arye Mekel, Israel’s consul general in New York.

Mekel was referring to a report in Israel’s Yediot Achronot newspaper that delegation members were hosted in a Tripoli hotel’s presidential suites.

It’s unclear what course compensation might take- from reconstructing run-down synagogues and cemeteries to financial remuneration to erecting a museum about Libyan Jewish history.

Raffaello Fellah, a Libyan Jewish leader in Rome, claims to have Khadafy’s authority to restore the Jewish ghetto in Tripoli, including an old synagogue.

In any case, the move marks a major development in recognizing the claims of Jewish refugees, Urman said. When Justice for Jews from Arab Countries, a coalition of several groups, was born 2 1/2 years ago, “this issue wasn’t even on the map.”

Since then, Israel has stepped up its efforts to record the histories of displaced Jewish refugees, and the U.S. Congress has two resolutions pending on the topic.

“Our objective is to get it on the international agenda,” Urman said. “The way to deal with it is direct negotiations between the parties,” and “in the context of the Middle East peace process.”

Urman’s group believes the issue of Jewish refugees can help resolve one of the most difficult issues in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict- the Palestinian demand for a refugee “right of return” to Israel, considered a means of strangling the Jewish state demographically.

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