Israel: Libyan Stance Could Improve Relations

Libya's pledge to abandon weapons of mass destruction could lead to friendly relations between Libya (search) and Israel, an Israeli official said Sunday.

In a surprise announcement, Libyan ruler Muammar al-Qaddafi (search) declared Friday that his country would abandon its nuclear weapons program to open its facilities to inspection.

Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom said if implemented, the disarmament pledge "will pave the way for Libya's return to the family of nations."

Israeli intelligence officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Libya's move appeared genuine and not an attempt at deception. The officials called it "dramatic and important."

Israel estimated that Libya was close to achieving nuclear weapons capability, and officials said that without a threat of a missile attack from Libya, Israel could redeploy some of its Arrow anti-missile batteries.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Jonathan Peled held out the possibility of Libya-Israel relations.

"There is no conflict or animosity with the Libyan people," Peled said. "We are definitely willing to have relations with any nation or country in the world that is willing to recognize Israel as a sovereign or free country."

In March, Gadhafi initiated talks with the British and then the United States amid the buildup to the U.S.-led war in Iraq. The overtures came after Libya agreed to a $2.7 billion settlement for the Pan Am bombing. As a result, Britain pushed successfully for the lifting of U.N. penalties against on Libya, a sprawling desert country in northwest Africa.

Gadhafi's announcement was followed by calls by Arab states for Israel to dispose of its nuclear arsenal, including from Egypt and the Arab League, which includes 21 Arab states and the Palestinian authority.

Israel is the only Middle Eastern country believed to possess nuclear weapons, though it has never admitted that.

Peled said Israel would not be under greater pressure to disarm even if Libya followed through on its promises.

"Israel's position is very clear, that once there is peace and security in the region, the Middle East should be a nuclear-free zone," Peled said.