Yossi Melman
Haaretz (Opinion)
August 25, 2011 - 12:00am

The chances that Israel will establish even low-level relations with a new regime that takes shape in Tripoli are not great. This assessment is based on a Haaretz interview this week with Ahmad Shabani, a Libyan opposition leader. Since the rebel government formed about six months ago in Benghazi, envoys have been trying to figure out if there are hopes of establishing a diplomatic relationship with Israel. Jewish businessmen, most of them of Libyan origin, have been particularly active in these efforts; they have told Israel's Foreign Ministry and other government agencies that they have personal relations with figures in the Benghazi interim government and have offered help in cultivating ties.

These messages were received, assessed and rejected. Israel decided not to get involved in Libya's civil war. Libya is not defined in Israel as an enemy state; its army did not take part in wars against Israel. Yet after Col. Muammar Gadhafi's rise to power in 1969, Libya became a vocal supporter of Palestinian causes and carried out an extremely hostile policy toward Israel. Its security services supplied weapons to Palestinian terror groups, sometimes smuggling them via diplomatic pouches or embassies. Abu Nidal's organization was one group that received weapons and ample financial backing from Libya.

Due to its involvement in terror, and attempts to develop nonconventional weapons, Libya was constantly monitored by the Mossad and Military Intelligence. Despite this monitoring, Israeli intelligence officials were surprised in late 2003 when Gadhafi reached agreements with the United States and Britain, pledging to abandon Libya's efforts to develop nuclear, chemical and biological weapons. Military intelligence and Mossad officials traded accusations as to who was responsible for this intelligence gaffe.

Gadhafi's men in Jerusalem

Ironically, in contrast to the lack of meaningful ties with the rebels, one strange link was maintained with Gadhafi's besieged regime during the Libyan civil war. A few weeks ago, two Libyan citizens, bearing Libyan passports, arrived in Israel and tried to persuade Foreign Ministry officials that Al-Qaida operatives were active among the rebels. In exchange for this putative intelligence information, the pair asked for Israel's help in opening doors to the U.S. government. And they hinted that Gadhafi would consider recognizing Israel and maintaining some sort of ties with the country in the future.

Officials at the Foreign Ministry and the Mossad were incredulous; they refused to meet with the two envoys. But opposition leader Tzipi Livni did, much to the chagrin of the Foreign Ministry; the meeting occurred when all Western states had severed ties with Gadhafi's regime and recognized the rebel government. So the Livni meeting created the impression that Israel was still prepared to flirt with a Libyan ruler deemed a war criminal under international law.

Amid the anarchy in Libya, local warlords and foreign middlemen gained control of weapons looted from arsenals. The weapons black market in Libya reached new heights, Israeli intelligence officers discovered. Anti-tank and anti-aircraft guns, mortars and other weapons were smuggled to Gaza via Egypt and reached Hamas. Various people took steps to halt the smuggling; they were assured that efforts were being made in Libya to shut down the weapons black market.

The strange incident featuring Gadhafi's two envoys in Israel indirectly involved Walter Arbib, a Jewish businessman of Libyan descent whose name is unfamiliar to Israelis. Arbib inquired about the envoys with Foreign Ministry officials; when he was told that the officials were not interested in meeting with the pair, Arbib severed ties with them.

Links to both sides

Arbib, who celebrated his 70th birthday in May in Israel, lives in Toronto and is a partner in the company SkyLink Aviation. He was born in Tunisia in 1941; his family fled Libya after the outbreak of World War II and later returned. The family lived in Tripoli until 1967; it left Libya after the Six-Day War.

Arbib immigrated to Israel and lived here for about a decade, trying his hand in the tourism industry. He organized tours to Egypt after the Camp David Accords in 1979; in 1988 he settled in Toronto and established SkyLink, which focuses on getting humanitarian aid to distressed areas in Africa, Asia and Europe, in cooperation with governments and international organizations.

He is considered a generous supporter of institutions in Israel, including Sheba Medical Center, and he has especially close ties with Vice Prime Minister Silvan Shalom. Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman has also befriended him, and Arbib helped Lieberman over a year ago when an Israeli of Tunisian origins, the photographer Rafael Haddad, was detained in Libya on suspicion of espionage. The media reported that Lieberman was helped mainly by Austrian businessman Martin Schlaff, who Israeli authorities seek for questioning. Schlaff lent his private plane so Haddad could be flown out of Libya.

Yet Arbib deserves full credit for Haddad's release because of his behind-the-scenes efforts, which he modestly refuses to discuss. In a telephone conversation with Haaretz, Arbib, who has shunned the spotlight throughout his career, said it's still too early to predict how recent events in Libya will affect relations with Israel. "I have friends linked to the rebels' government, and I had friends in Gadhafi's camp. It all depends on who rises to power after democratic elections."


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