- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 26, 2009

CAIRO

He has stoked unrest among African nations but now heads the African Union and is pledging to tackle the Darfur crisis. Recently, he urged that Arab leaders allow their citizens to travel to the Gaza Strip to fight Israel, but later, he said the world’s Jews deserve their own homeland - albeit in a state shared with Palestinians called “Isratine.”

At first glance, Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi’s seemingly contradictory stances look like business as usual for a man known for his love of the spotlight - and of controversy - and for eccentricities such as having an all-female bodyguard team, a unique choice for the head of a Muslim nation.

But as oil-rich Libya throws open its doors after decades as a pariah state, some analysts think the 66-year-old Arab and African leader is trying to hone his image in the West, using the recognition he gets from fellow Africans to offset the disdain he has long endured from his Arab counterparts.

Col. Gadhafi “says what he feels like saying, with no real sense of possible contradiction,” said George Joffe, a Libya expert at the Center of International Studies at Britain’s Cambridge University. “But there is, behind it, a consistency.

“It is that he doesn’t want to unsettle the United States,” Mr. Joffe said.

As President Obama begins to chart a new U.S. foreign policy - and with renewed Tripoli-Washington relations still in their infancy - Col. Gadhafi is careful to appear as a potential facilitator in two of the world’s most troubled regions. Although he seems determined to hang onto his role as a revolutionary, he has shed his terrorist image.

“People change, and Gadhafi has been a master of readjusting policies to meet realities,” Mr. Joffe said.

Helping him in that change is his background, said John Hamilton, an analyst with Cross-border Information, a British-based firm that researches the Middle East and North Africa.

“Gadhafi has got very strong views, and he’s got the ability to project them because of who he is, and what he’s been,” Mr. Hamilton said.

Col. Gadhafi’s nearly 40-year history as Libya’s leader reads like a resume of terror and revolutionary causes, including playing host to Abu Nidal after Syria expelled the Palestinian militant leader who was linked to the killing of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics.

But Libya’s own acts were nothing to scoff at, provoking a U.S. air strike in 1986 after the bombing of a disco in Berlin that killed two American servicemen. Two years later, a bomb thought to have been planted by Libyans destroyed Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, killing all 259 people on board and 11 on the ground.

Col. Gadhafi’s decision to hand over the two suspects in the Pan Am case more than a decade later, pay billions of dollars in compensation and renounce his weapons of mass destruction program paved the way for the lifting of U.S. sanctions in 2004 and the country’s re-emergence on the world scene.

His election early this month to head the African Union marks Col. Gadhafi’s latest triumph - a post that he looks to parlay into promoting his vision of a unified African government he likes to call “the United States of Africa.”

The idea, like most of Col. Gadhafi’s past unity bids, is unlikely to get much traction. But the new African Union post fits neatly into his hopes to prove wrong the Arab kings and presidents who generally have viewed him as part troublemaker, part madman.

Col. Gadhafi, who is wily enough to have kept a firm hold on Libya’s leadership since seizing power as a young army officer in a 1969 coup, has long sought to put down other Arab leaders by appealing over their heads to the Arab people.

That was the spirit behind his call for Arabs to go fight Israel during its war on the Gaza Strip and for Arab leaders to let them do so, which cast those leaders as too timid or frightened to unleash the Arab masses on the Jewish state.

Then came the other side of the coin - Col. Gadhafi’s op-ed essay in the New York Times late last month in which he declared: “The basis for the modern State of Israel is the persecution of the Jewish people, which is undeniable. … The Jewish people want and deserve their homeland.”

Col. Gadhafi resurrected the single-state idea, It dates to the 1940s when the Palestinians, then the majority between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River, tried to block the birth of a Jewish nation. Lately the proposal has been taken up again by some Palestinians as they see their tiny would-be state being gobbled up by Jewish settlements, but it is firmly opposed by Israel and the United States.

Nobody is going to be too upset, however, about the revival of an idea that’s likely to slip back into obscurity. Most experts do not expect that Col. Gadhafi will be able to create an “Isratine,” any more than he could turn his idea of a pan-Arab state into reality - or that he will be able to bring about a unified Africa, given that some African leaders firmly opposed Col. Gadhafi’s election.

“In terms of weight, or ability to influence the process, nobody feels … he has any significant influence,” Bruce Maddy-Weitzman, a North Africa expert at Tel Aviv University’s Dayan Center, said of the Libyan leader.

Still, Mr. Joffe from Cambridge’s international studies center notes that the “Isratine” plan, which Colonel Gadhafi first proposed in 2002, allows him to grab the spotlight without having to take substantial action.

“It’s a device to avoid having to engage,” Mr. Joffe said. “If he doesn’t have to engage, he doesn’t upset the United States.”

Col. Gadhafi’s pledge at this month’s African summit to make the Darfur crisis his personal responsibility also fits into his hopes to appear more moderate before the U.S. and the West. The beleaguered Sudanese region was a major focus for President George W. Bush’s administration and will likely be a pressing concern for Mr. Obama.

Col. Gadhafi’s new image has the advantage of strengthening Libya’s economy, too, thus helping keep his hold on power. After the decades of Libya’s isolation, business ties are growing between the country and the European Union, and U.S. companies are now back at work in the Libyan oil fields.

“We’ll have to wait and see what happens in the Obama administration,” said Mr. Joffe. “But is Libya big enough to bother about when you’re talking about Iran, North Korea and Palestine? The answer is no, not yet, particularly when it keeps American business happy.”

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