Accelerating Inevitable Israeli-Libyan Relations

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By Matthew Mainen

There are many positive signs that Libya and Israel will have diplomatic relations. First, Bernard Henry Levi accidently leaked the National Transitional Council’s desire to establish ties. Then, leader of the exiled Libyan Jews community and Israeli citizen, Raphael Luzon was invited by NTC chairman Mustafa Abdul Jalil to run for office. Most recently, Haaretz quoted an NTC spokesperson, Ahmad Shabani, as speaking favorably to Israeli relations.

Shabani’s speaking to Haaretz over other Israeli daily’s was most likely a calculated move by the NTC to gauge Arab public opinion. Haaretz is widely read throughout the region, with Israel being the only country to beat Qatar in per capita visits. There was no protest in the Arab world.

This should not come as a surprise. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict was tenuously morphed into an Israeli-Arab conflict by despotic leaders wishing to redirect aggression and attention that would otherwise be aimed at them. This is why Bashar Assad has desperately painted the Syrian democratic uprising as an Israeli conspiracy. But the Arab Spring has ended this charade, and the Arab people cannot believe that their struggle for democracy is a Jewish plot. It is only natural that revolutionary inquiry has lead to a reevaluation of dogmas regarding Israel.

While some argue that it is unlikely that Israel and Libya will soon establish relations, these arguments are not convincing. When Israel established diplomatic relations with Arab countries in the past, most significantly Egypt and Jordan but also Libya’s neighbor Mauritania, it was met with insignificant uproar. Simply put, when Arab leaders end their anti-Israel demagoguery, their people become less hostile towards Israel. When freedom of inquiry flourishes, anti-Semitism diminishes.

While public opinion has proven to be unproblematic in the past, it’s best not to wait for the Arab Spring to cool and for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to again become the region’s hot topic. This requires the immediate creations of a “fact on the ground” while foreign relations are the least of the Libyan people’s concerns.

With the media focusing on the hunt for Gadaffi and the tense negotiations in the Gadaffi stronghold of Sirte, Israel and Libya can quietly exchange ambassadors. Israel will preferably pick an Arab-Israeli diplomat for the post such as Atlanta Deputy Consul Raslan Abu Rukun, who can better establish rapport with the Libyan population than a Jew. In addition, a suitable number of Arab-Israel doctors, furthering the rapport-building, should be sent as a goodwill gesture.

The situation also gives Israel an opportunity to reach out to other friendly Arab states. Qatar is a prime candidate given both its amicable relations with Israel and a desire to become the Arab world’s diplomatic kingmaker. Sensing an opportunity, Qatar spearheaded the campaign against Gadaffi knowing that a new regime would be indebted to the monarchy. Israel can enhance Qatar’s diplomatic presence while Qatar can use its influence in the Arab world to make Israel more appealing to Libya and its people.

For better or worse, Qatar has skewed al-Jazeera’s coverage to coincide with its foreign policy, and it has undoubtedly played a large role in the Arab Spring. It would be little trouble for Qatar to produce several programs faintly sympathetic to Israel and Jews such as an expose on Libyan Jewry or a positive piece on the Arab-Israeli experience. 

Israel, on the other hand, can agree to Qatar’s longstanding request that it be given primary role in Gaza’s redevelopment and that Israel recognize its preeminence in the Arab world. This would also serve Israel’s interests as a large Qatari presence in Gaza will overshadow any attempts by Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan to pull Hamas into his sphere of influence.

With the end of Israeli-Turkish relations, and make no optimistic doubt about it – they’re over, 
Israel must reinvent Ben Gurion’s vision of an alliance on the Muslim periphery. Libya is a prime contender. Moreover, Libya’s undeniable desire for European closeness instills in its government the same motivation of an earlier Turkey to seek relations with Israel, a sometimes difficult but undeniable component of the West.

As the Palestinian Authority’s late September UN statehood bid rapidly approaches, Israel’s vacation from the spotlight is quickly coming to close. It’s time for a diplomatic victory, and nothing would be wiser than a rapid investment in Libyan relations.

Matthew Mainen is a policy analyst at the Institute for Gulf Affairs.

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