JERUSALEM – In a sign of a possible thaw between longtime Mideast enemies, Israeli and Libyan officials reportedly held secret contacts in Europe last month, and an Israeli legislator said he met several months ago with Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi's (search) son.
The reports come as al-Qaddafi tries to remake his image after years as an international pariah.
Both countries played down the reports. Libya (search) denied the meetings took place, while circumspect Israeli officials said only that diplomatic relations are a "long way" off.
Al-Qaddafi was once one of Israel's harshest critics in the Arab world, at one point hosting military bases for radical Palestinian groups. In the mid-1990s, Libya expelled thousands of Palestinians in protest after Yasser Arafat entered peace talks with Israel.
But in recent years, al-Qaddafi has toned down his anti-Israel rhetoric as part of a larger effort to rehabilitate his international image.
Last year, Libya agreed to compensate families of the victims of the 1988 Pan Am 103 bombing (search) over Lockerbie, Scotland, and to take responsibility for the actions of Libyan officials in the bombing. The United Nations subsequently ended years of sanctions against Libya.
Al-Qaddafi last month abruptly renounced efforts to build weapons of mass destruction and opened his country's weapons-production facilities to international inspection.
That move was widely seen as a response to the U.S.-led victory in Iraq.
Still, Libya continues to be on the State Department's list of terrorism sponsors, and U.S. sanctions against Libya remain in place.
Those sanctions, first imposed in 1986, have denied Libya access to hundreds of millions of dollars in property and bank assets, according to U.S. estimates. Peace moves toward Israel would likely be viewed favorably in Washington -- and would be a significant achievement for Israel.
Peace treaties with its neighbors, Egypt and Jordan, and the ouster of Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq have ended many of the international threats against Israel.
Many Arab nations -- from Morocco to Persian Gulf states -- have informal or low-level ties with the Jewish state. Only Syria, Iran and, to a lesser extent, Libya remain as pressing international threats.
"Clearly this is part of a larger shift of Libya trying to restore itself in the good graces of the international community," said Bruce Maddy-Weitzman, a Libya expert at Tel Aviv University. "There is a widespread view that the road to Washington, if it doesn't lead through Israel, it certainly can't hurt."
Nonetheless, he said he didn't expect much to come of the reported contacts without progress on the currently stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts.
Israel welcomed last month's announcement on Libya's weapons. Foreign Ministry officials said at the time the move could lead to friendly relations.
The most recent Israeli-Libyan meeting reportedly involved Ron Prosor, a senior aide to Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom. Israeli media said it took place last month in Europe -- either in Vienna or Paris.
Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Jonathan Peled would not comment on the reports of the meeting, but said Prosor accompanied Shalom on a visit to Europe in late December.
The other meeting included Ilan Shalgi, an Israeli lawmaker from the ruling coalition, and al-Qaddafi's son, Saif Salam al-Qaddafi.
Shalgi said the meeting took place in August in an undisclosed European capital.
"[Saif] al-Qaddafi impressed me very much," Shalgi told The Associated Press Wednesday. "He is a very serious man, speaks excellent English and has considerable self-confidence." Israeli-Libyan relations weren't discussed, Shalgi said.
The younger al-Qaddafi is widely regarded as the likely successor to his father.
The Libyan Foreign Ministry said al-Qaddafi's son participated at a conference in Greece last summer attended by more than 1,000 people from 15 countries, and it played down the significance of any discussions during the event.
"Many people from the region participated in that conference and there may have been Israelis and others," spokesman Hassouna al-Shawish said. "There was a session of discussion, but he did not meet anyone from Israel."
Israel's Foreign Ministry issued a statement saying "it's still a very long way down the road before Israel and Libya can establish diplomatic relations... The Libyan leader has to demonstrate in action that he is headed toward real negotiation."
The statement said Shalom would take advantage of every opportunity to improve Israel's relations with Arab countries, saying Wednesday's reports were "causing Israel damage" in reaching that goal.
In Libya, the Foreign Ministry denied any meeting with Israeli officials, according to the official Libyan news agency JANA.
"We would like to assert that officials in Libya have investigated this issue and have not found any evidence of it," al-Shawish said, according to JANA. "International relations are not built on intrigue."
The Yediot Ahronot daily said Libya has expressed an interest in opening business and commercial contacts with Israel, without obligating itself to establishing diplomatic relations.