Just a month after playing host to a Russian-American spy swap, Vienna’s international airport was again last week the stage for a surprising secretive manoeuvre, this time involving the Libyan and Israeli governments, Europe’s most senior leaders and one of Austria’s richest businessmen.
The main protagonist of the night-time drama was Rafael Hadad, a 34-year-old Israeli photographer, who was arrested in Libya five months ago for allegedly spying for Israel. Two days before his arrest, he updated his Facebook status, writing, “I have just seen Muammar Gaddafi driving his own car, no bodyguards. Gaddafi is great”. The next day he updated again: “I’m in trouble”.
Thus started a vigorous effort by the Israeli foreign ministry to free Hadad, and according to media reports here, Silvio Berlusconi, Nicolas Sarkozy and Tony Blair were involved in trying to persuade the Libyan authorities to free him. He arrived eventually at the Austrian capital aboard a private jet owned by Martin Schlaff, an Austrian entrepreneur with excellent connections in both Jerusalem and Tripoli.
Hadad was sent to Libya by the Or Shalom Center, an association of elderly Libyan Jews who fled their native country in the 1940s and 1950s due to attacks on Jewish quarters and harassments. Or Shalom’s chairman, Pedatzur Ben-Atia, told reporters that Hadad’s mission was “to document buildings and remains of buildings from the heyday of the Libyan Jewish community”, as part of the association’s mission to preserve and commemorate Libya’s Jewish legacy.
Hadad’s risky trip drew attention to the little-discussed phenomenon of Jews from Arab countries who left behind private and public properties estimated to be worth billions of dollars. In what has been dubbed “The Jewish Naqba” (“catastrophe” in Arabic), the Jewish population of Arab countries has dropped from about a million in the middle of the 20th century to practically zero today, due to discrimination, stripping of citizenship and physical attacks that occurred amid the Israeli-Arab conflict.
Rachel Machtiger, a senior research fellow at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya, says that bringing up the issue could have positive effects on the current peace process. “When one side to the negotiating table considers himself to be the ultimate victim, as the Palestinians now do,” she says, “he is not in the position of bargaining about anything. Recognising that Middle Eastern Jews had to flee their native countries as refugees because of the conflict would not only make justice, but also show the Palestinians that they are not the only victims.”
Direct talks between Israel and the Palestinians are to resume later this month, and creative thinking is much needed to reach an agreement. So why not also consider Hadad’s Libyan adventure?