Washington - A year after the White House dropped all sanctions against Libya, relations with the African nation are once again becoming a sore subject, with Congress and Jewish groups both calling for new punitive measures against the government of Muammar el-Qaddafi.
Last week, the Senate approved a measure that cut all funding for the construction of a new American embassy in Tripoli. A few days earlier, B’nai B’rith International had led opposition to Libya’s nomination to head the planning committee for the United Nations anti-racism conference, scheduled for 2009.
Libya was first invited back into the good graces of the Western world in 2003, when Qaddafi agreed to end his nation’s nuclear program and strengthen relations with the West. The Libyan regime made particularly notable overtures toward Israel and the extensive community of Jewish refugees from Libya.
The rapprochement was presented in Washington as a model for ties with the Arab and Muslim world. But the hostile messages from the Senate and from Jewish groups suggest the degree to which the model has faltered.
The failures to this point have not ended all hopes for good ties. The White House, in contrast to Congress, has continued pushing for warmer ties with Tripoli. And some Jewish leaders say that it is too soon to give up hope.
Jack Rosen, chairman of the American Jewish Congress, visited Libya several months ago and met with Qaddafi for an hour-long discussion in the Libyan leader’s tent.
“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 said, stressing that there is still room for criticism, but “we must find the right balance.”
When the United States dropped its sanctions against Libya last year, a host of hot-button issues were supposed to disappear. There was the Libyan nuclear program, which does appear to have come to an end. For the American Congress, though, the primary bone of contention was the compensation for family members of the victims on Pan Am 103, the plane that was blown up over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988 by Libyan agents.
As part of its agreement with the United States in 2003, Libya was set to pay more than $1 billion in compensation in three installments. The third one was supposed to have been made after America removed Libya from the list of countries sponsoring terror, but it never went through. American officials blame the Libyans for breaking their promise, while Libyans claim that Washington missed the deadline for removing it from the list and thus did not live up to its end of the deal.
Among the 270 victims of the attack were 38 New Jersey natives, represented by Senator Frank Lautenberg. Last week, in an attempt to pressure Libya to make the third payment, Lautenberg passed legislation — as part of the State Department budget — to block funding for a new American embassy in Tripoli.
“To not deliver on their promise is a slap in the face to American families that have waited for years for accountability for Libya’s crimes. Libya must no longer be allowed to drag its feet, and the U.S. must not pursue fully normalized diplomatic relations with Libya until they fulfill their legal obligations to American families,” Lautenberg said.
A separate prong in Libya’s warming relations with the West came during discussion with Jewish groups. In 2003, Jews of Libyan origin were invited to meetings with Libyan officials in which they were told of Qaddafi’s wish to see them return to their country and to build a new and promising relationship.
A year and a half ago, the Libyan leader openly declared that he would be willing to discuss compensation for private and communal property that belonged to Jews in Libya. Yet as time passed, the discussions turned out to be fruitless and the forums were all but dissolved. Other discussions, regarding requests for preservation of Jewish heritage sites in Libya and commemorating the pogroms against the country’s Jews, also reached no conclusion.
“We are far from reaching our goals,” Stanley Urman said. Urman, executive director of Justice for Jews From Arab Countries, which is an advocacy group working for recognition and compensation for Jewish refugees, believes that the difficulties in resolving the issues relating to Libyan Jews reflect the larger political problems between Libya and the West.
According to one Jewish official, who requested anonymity, the Libyans saw ties with the Jewish community as a way to improve their image in Washington, but as the formal ties with the United States have soured, the interest in the Jewish case also has declined.
The latest cause for difficulties is the United Nations anti-racism conference. Libya was named to lead the planning for the conference, which has traditionally been a stage for criticizing Israel.
While Libya initially showed signs of openness to Israel, little materialized on this front, and today Israelis would not be able to enter Libya if the conference were held there.
B’nai B’rith International harshly criticized the decision to give Libya planning responsibilities.
“With its historic anti-Zionist agenda and poor human rights record, we question why Libya would be given the lead responsibility for planning the 2009 conference,” the B’nai B’rith statement reads.
Sybil Kessler, the organization’s director of U.N. affairs, said that “Libya’s performance as chair of the preparatory committee can be a good indicator of how serious they are in showing moderation.”
Nathan Guttman staff writer, is the Forward’s Washington bureau chief. He joined the staff in 2006 after serving for five years as Washington correspondent for the Israeli dailies Ha’aretz and The Jerusalem Post. In Israel, he was the features editor for Ha’aretz and chief editor of Channel 1 TV evening news. He was born in Canada and grew up in Israel. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Contact Nathan at firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow him on Twitter @nathanguttman