WASHINGTON – Now it can be told: For the last decade or so, the pro-Israel community had secret back channels to Muammar Khaddafi.
What led the community into a careful relationship with Khaddafi 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 America is that the relationship was worth it, despite the Libyan strongman’s erratic behavior and his ignoble downfall.
The reason: Khaddafi’s shift away from state terrorism after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks eliminated a funder and organizer of threats to Israeli and U.S. interests.
Khaddafi’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 bring an elderly aunt to Italy, where he and his family now live. His aunt, Rina Debach, is believed to be the last Jew to have lived in Libya.
Through interlocutors, Gerbi told JTA that “Khaddafi asked me if I could help to normalize the relationship between Libya and the United States.”
Khaddafi’s motives were clear, according to Gerbi: Saddam Hussein was in the U.S. sights at the time and Khaddafi, who already was tentatively reaching out to the West through Britain, did not want to be next on the list.
“He saw what’s next, he was on the list of terrorist countries,” Gerbi said.
Khaddafi 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, who still hopes to reestablish a Jewish presence in Libya, immediately launched 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. In the end, “we didn’t want to stand in the way of Libyan Jews having the opportunity to visit.”
Especially notable was the fervor with which the late U.S. Rep. Tom Lantos (D-Calif.), a Holocaust survivor who then was the senior Democrat on the House 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.
Steve Rosen, now a consultant to a number of groups on Middle East issues, was at the time the director of foreign policy for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. 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 – Khaddafi’s son, Seif al-Islam, sought them out at a conference on the Middle East in England.
“He kept finding ways to bring us into the dialogue,” Rosen recalled. “It became plain we were the reasons for his coming to the conference. He considered us influential in Washington because we were pro-Israel.”
Rosen took the younger Khaddafi’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 Khaddafi, but the idea of a rogue state becoming moderate appealed to them,” Rosen said.