Libyan ruler Moammar Khaddafy met for the first time Monday with Libyan Jewish expatriates as a prelude to paying reparations to Libyan Jews who fled in the 1960s.
If Khaddafy makes good on his promise to make such payments, Libya would become the first Arab country to pay Jews who were forced to leave their homes. Jews lost $1 billion in Libya alone, officials representing the community said.
Shalom Naim of West Orange, N.J., chairman of the American-Libyan Jewry Association, said the “Libyans are saying they confiscated the property of 623 [Jewish] families.”
Naim said the $1 billion figure includes communal property, and that it was unclear how much Khaddafy was willing to pay.
The communal assets include more than 50 synagogues, more than 20 cemeteries, two Jewish community centers, a Jewish hospital, more than 10 Jewish schools, a retirement home and two mikvehs, according to Stanley Urman, executive director of Justice for Jews from Arab Countries.
Naim said Khaddafy has appointed representatives to handle the negotiations and that he expects them to begin in Rome later this year.
Among the sticking points likely to emerge in those talks is the fact that Khaddafy did not come to power until Sept. 1, 1969, and that he does not want to compensate any of the 4,327 Jews who were forced to flee to Italy for their own protection following the outbreak of the Six-Day War on June 5, 1967, and never returned. Libya’s ruler at the time was King Idris, Naim said.
Naim said he and his parents returned several months after the Six-Day War and continued their real estate business, but fled again in 1970 after Khaddafy assumed power and they realized that Libya was no place for Jews. Naim said his family was one of the last to leave Libya; an elderly woman is believed to be the only Jew living in Libya today.
Although President Bush recently ended American sanctions on Libya that were imposed by executive order, congressionally imposed sanctions are still in place, as well as the designation of Libya as a terrorist state. Monday’s meeting with Jewish leaders is seen as another attempt by Khaddafy to win the lifting of the American sanctions on his 35-year-old regime.
Khaddafy knows that he must first “find a way to improve his contacts with the Jewish community” if he hopes to make headway in Washington, said Gerald Steinberg, a political science professor at Bar-Ilan University who has had private talks with Khaddafy’s eldest son, Seis.
The sanctions were imposed because of Libya’s role in state-sponsored terrorism, including the 1988 bombing of a Pan Am flight over Lockerbie in 1988 that killed 270 people. They have been lifted gradually since Khaddafy announced in December that he was ending his development of weapons of mass destruction. Khaddafy also has been paying compensation to the families of the victims of his country’s terrorist attacks.
On Monday, the European Union announced it was lifting its 18-year arms embargo on Libya. That same day, Khaddafy and his son Saadi, a professional soccer player, met at the Berogia Hotel in Tripoli with the six-member Jewish delegation. All of them now live in Italy.
“They were put in suites in the hotel by the government and treated as dignitaries,” Naim said.
The Italian daily La Republica quoted the leader of the Jewish delegation, Lion Baserman, as saying that Moammar Khaddafy told them, “You are Libya’s brothers.”
A Milan public relations firm said Saadi had played a key role in setting up the meeting after he met with representatives of the delegation in Italy last month. And Italian news reports said that Jewish-Libyan expatriates had attended a celebration Sept. 1 marking Libya’s National Day. The celebrations were held at the Libyan embassies to Italy and the Vatican.
Naim said the meeting Monday with the Jewish delegation was relatively brief and that it was meant to be that way.
“We didn’t want to say anything [about reparations],” he said. “We want to discuss them with the right people.”
If Khaddafy does make restitution payments to expelled Libyan Jews, however small, it would mark the first time an Arab country has done so. Urman noted that the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty in 1979 contained provisions for a mutual resolution of all claims, including property claims, by Egyptian courts. But he said that provision of the agreement has never been implemented.
Steinberg said Khaddafy is very interested in developing good economic relations and trade with the United States and that members of Congress are “watching to see what Libya is doing apart from talking.”
“The restitution of Jewish property will help them overcome the remaining obstacles,” he said. “It’s important to stress that there is a lot of skepticism” regarding Khaddafy’s intentions.
“It may just be cosmetic — he has a long history of supporting terrorism,” Steinberg said. “And Libya still does not recognize Israel.”
He noted that Europe, by opening its doors to Libya, allowed Khaddafy to remain in power and perpetuate his one-man rule.
“He may yet go back to importing weapons [of mass destruction],” Steinberg said. “There is good reason for skepticism.”
Naim said there are 2,000 Jews living in the United States who fled Libya in the late 1960s and 6,000 in Rome and its suburbs. Another 117,000 former Libyan Jews live in Israel, he said, most of whom left Libya during Israel’s War of Independence in 1948.
“Most of the Jews had a chance to sell their property if they left before June 5, 1967,” Naim said. “The Jews lived well until then.”
One of the topics that will be discussed at the Rome talks will be a request for the remains of 14 Jews — members of two families — who were killed by a Libyan police officer when the Six-Day War erupted.
“He buried them alive,” Naim said.
Naim said the relatives of those killed are also seeking information about the police officer who killed them.