Strange bedfellows: Gadhafi and pro-Israel groups

Now it can be told: For the last decade or so, the Jews had secret back channels to Moammar Gadhafi.

What led the pro-Israel community into a careful relationship with the Libyan leader were considerations of U.S. national interests, Israel’s security needs and the claims of Libyan Jews.

After his overthrow by Libyan rebels and his killing last week, the conclusion among many pro-Israel figures in the United States is that forging the relationship was worth it, despite the Libyan strongman’s erratic behavior and his ignoble downfall.

The reason: Gadhafi’s shift away from state terrorism after the 9/11 attacks eliminated a main source of funding, and a principle organizer, of threats to Israeli and U.S. interests.

Moammar Gadhafi at a ceremony in Minsk, Belarus photo/ap/sergei grits

Gadhafi’s overtures to the pro-Israel community began in 2002, when a leader of the Libyan Jewish community in exile, David Gerbi, returned to Libya to help his aunt — believed to be the last Jew in Libya — join the rest of her family in Italy.

Through interlocutors, Gerbi said, “Gadhafi asked me if I could help to normalize the relationship between Libya and the United States.”

Gadhafi’s motives were clear, according to Gerbi: Iraqi President Saddam Hussein was in U.S. sights at the time and Gadhafi, who already was tentatively reaching out to the West through Britain, did not want to be next on the list.

Gadhafi agreed to end his nascent weapons of mass destruction programs and to a payout in the billions of dollars to families of victims of the terrorist attack that brought down a Pan Am flight over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988.

Gerbi immediately went on a tour of the United States in hopes of rallying support for bringing Libya into the pro-Western fold. He met with pro-Israel groups and lawmakers.

“There were extensive discussions about what would be appropriate and not appropriate,” recalled Malcolm Hoenlein, the executive vice president of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, the Jewish community’s foreign policy umbrella group. In the end, “we didn’t want to stand in the way of [exiled] Libyan Jews having the opportunity to visit [their homeland].”

Especially notable was the fervor with which the late Rep. Tom Lantos (D–San Mateo County), a Holocaust survivor who then was the senior Democrat on the House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee, embraced the cause. Lantos, with the blessing of a George W. Bush administration seeking to contain radical Islamist influence, visited Libya five times.

“I am rational enough to recognize that we must accept ‘yes’ for an answer,” Lantos told the Forward newspaper in 2004 following his first visit. “Gadhafi’s record speaks for itself — it’s an abominable record — but the current actions also speak for themselves. He has now made a 180-degree turn.”

Lantos, associates said, delighted in showing visitors a gift he had received from Gadhafi: a copy of Gadhafi’s “White Book,” in which he promotes a one-state solution for Israel and the Palestinians called “Isratine.”

Steve Rosen, now a consultant to a number of groups on Middle East issues, was at the time the director of foreign policy for AIPAC. He said the pro-Israel community decided not to stand in the way of U.S. rapprochement with Libya because of the relief it would offer Israel.

Rosen and Alan Makovsky, a staffer for Lantos, were surprised when around 2002 — the same time that Gerbi was making the case for Libya in New York and Washington — Gadhafi’s son, Saif Islam Gadhafi, sought them out at a conference on the Middle East in England.

“He kept finding ways to bring us into the dialogue,” Rosen recalled. “He considered us influential in Washington because we were pro-Israel.”

Rosen took the younger Gadhafi’s case to the Israelis, who gave AIPAC a green light not to oppose Libya’s overtures — but they also counseled caution.

“Most of them raised an eyebrow, saying you can’t trust Gadhafi, but the idea of a rogue state becoming moderate appealed to them,” Rosen said.

That view seemingly was vindicated when Libya destroyed its weapons of mass destruction under U.S. supervision.

AIPAC would not comment on the affair. Keith Weissman, Rosen’s deputy at the time, confirmed the account, recalling his own trip to England, at Saif Islam Gadhafi’s invitation, in 2003.

“They were very nice, we drank wine and stuff,” he said of the Libyans.

Congress removed Libya from the 1990s Iran-Libya sanctions act, and Western oil companies returned to the country.

Most Jewish groups chose not to respond to invitations to visit Libya, noting that while Gadhafi had removed himself as a threat to others, he was still dangerous to his own people.

“Nobody was fooled, everybody knew what Gadhafi was,” said Hoenlein, who like Rosen had turned down invitations to visit Libya.

Yet a few of Libya’s new Jewish-American interlocutors didn’t stop at merely not standing in the way of normalization; they seemed to embrace the Gadhafi regime.

Jack Rosen, then the chairman of the American Jewish Congress, met in 2007 with Gadhafi and counseled greater outreach.

“He represents a model of a leader who chose to take a risk in talking to the West, and we need to reinforce the path he chose,” Rosen told the Forward. Rosen did not return requests for comment for this story.

Such hopes were soon dashed by Gadhafi. He grew closer with the anti-U.S. president of Venezuela, Hugo Chavez, and dabbled in the internal affairs of other African countries. In 2009 he delivered a long, bizarre rant at the U.N. General Assembly. He pursued a weird one-sided courtship with Condoleezza Rice, Bush’s secretary of state, which she once said gave her the chills.

And Gadhafi’s promises of restitution to Libya’s Jewish exiles — driven out two years before Gadhafi took power in 1969 — came to naught.

Much hope now rests on the provisional government that has replaced Gadhafi. Gerbi advocates caution. At the revolutionaries’ invitation, since May he has spent weeks on and off in Libya helping its people to overcome post-traumatic stress.

Yet at Rosh Hashanah, when Gerbi attempted to reopen a shuttered, neglected synagogue in Tripoli, he was met with a virulently anti-Semitic, Facebook-fueled campaign. Protesters outside the synagogue held up signs proclaiming what Gadhafi had once promised: no Jews in Libya.

Gerbi, who still hopes to re-establish a Jewish presence in Libya, left at the transitional government’s behest, but says he will go back, albeit with a more skeptical eye.

“Gadhafi instilled a lot of hatred. The situation has to evolve.”

Ron Kampeas

Ron Kampeas is the D.C. bureau chief at the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.