JERUSALEM, Israel — Down to what may be his bitter end, Muammar Gaddafi has tried to use the Palestinian issue as a diversion to prop up his dictatorial rule and to present himself as the high priest of Arabism.
So it was that right after the ouster of neighboring Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, with the risk of a revolt in Libya rising, Gaddafi last month issued a call on Palestinian refugees to mass at Israel's borders holding olive branches in their hands.
''In this context of Arab popular revolutionary movement, Palestinian refugees must walk on Palestine with women and children," he said
Indeed, over the years many of the colonel's pronouncements on the Israeli-Palestinian dispute have sounded almost as bizarre as his recent claims that Al Qaeda is drugging Libya's youth into rebelling. But they have also been calculated to project Gaddafi as a leading Arab nationalist worthy of support within and beyond Libya's borders.
Libya, in Gaddafi's view, remained true to Arab nationalism while other Arab regimes betrayed it.
''All Arab states which have relations with Israel are cowardly regimes,'' he said in the same Feb. 13 speech.
After leading a coup in 1969, Gaddafi, styling himself as a disciple of Egyptian pan-Arabist leader Gamal Abdul-Nasser, made it a point to be the most uncompromising of leaders when it came to Israel. He did not call the Jewish state by name, but rather the "Zionist enemy." Rhetorically, at least, he espoused mobilization of the entire Arab world to destroy Israel.
''When Nasser died in 1970, Gaddafi saw himself as his successor,'' said Yehudit Ronen, a Libya specialist at the Dayan Center for Middle East Studies at Tel Aviv University and political scientist at Bar Ilan University. "He raised the flag of the destruction of Israel. He understood the potential to coalesce the masses under his flag. Israel became a means for him to break down tribal loyalties in Libya and channel them to strengthen the legitimacy of the regime."
When Egyptian President Anwar Sadat decided to make peace with Israel and traveled to Jerusalem in 1977, Gaddafi considered him a traitor and encouraged the idea of assassinating him, said Ronen.
In Palestinian politics, Gaddafi supported the most radical factions and splinter groups, including the terrorist known as Abu Nidal, according to Atiyeh Jawabra, a political scientist at the West Bank's al-Quds University. Abu Nidal waged assassinations against leaders of Yasser Arafat's Fatah movement who supported a political accomodation with Israel.
"He did not support our people, he was a supporter of Abu Nidal for a long time,'' Jawabra said. "Everyone opposed to Arafat he supported."
The sense that Gaddafi was not a true friend of the Palestinian cause was accentuated in 1982 when he did not lift a finger to help Palestinian Liberation Organization fighters besieged by the Israeli military in Beirut, Lebanon. Instead, he advocated that they all become martyrs by committing suicide, Jawabra recalled.
At times, Gaddafi found it expedient to tone down his rhetoric, especially when he sought to bring to an end sanctions imposed on Libya for the 1988 Lockerbie bombing of a Pan Am flight over Scotland in which 270 people were killed.
And he eventually came up with his own solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict more palatable to western ears than simply calling for Israel's destruction. The only way to end the strife, he once said, is to have Israel and Palestine merge into one state, Isratine.
"The region which lies between the Jordan and the Mediterranean is too small to accommodate two states," he said in 2002. "It is like trying to put two bodies into one item of clothing or two men wearing the same pair of trousers. This is impossible."
In 2003, to better his ties with the West, he gave up Libya's programs for weapons of mass destruction, earning a resumption of relations with the United States.
In recent years, Gaddafi's son, Saif al-Islam, had tried to project a more moderate foreign policy image for Libya. As part of that he has stressed that he recognizes the Holocaust as a historical fact, in contrast to widespread Holocaust denial in the Arab world. Saif al-Islam has said if the Arab world recognizes the Holocaust, perhaps Israel will recognize the nakba, or Palestinain catastrophe that accompanied Israel's creation in 1948.
This didn't stop his father from declaring during a U.N. General Assembly speech in 2009 that Israel was behind the assassination of John F. Kennedy. The motive, according to Gaddafi, was that Kennedy wanted to investigate Israel's Dimona nuclear reactor.
If and when Gaddafi falls, it seems few tears would be shed by either Palestinians or Israelis.
"I hope he will go down,'' Israeli defense minister Ehud Barak said in a recent CNN interview.
Jawabra, the Palestinian analyst, said: ''His history is full of positions against the Arab nation and human rights. The Libyan people are our brothers. We support the people, not Gaddafi, a dictator. From my point of view, he must go."