One-ring Circus

Who knows, peace with the Palestinians could mean that the Tel Aviv beaches will be the next place Libyan leader Muammar Gadhafi pitches his tent on a jaunt abroad. His agents will make sure he never loses power

"It was impossible not to be extremely impressed by this strange host. First they leave you to stew in your own juices for four or five days in the hotel, where security personnel wearing dark sunglasses sit in the lobby. As soon as you sit down with a colleague for coffee, they prick up their ears as if you're about to reveal state secrets. Then they gradually move their chairs closer to where you're sitting so they can hear better.

"You can't leave the hotel, because the phone call from the tent is likely to come at any moment and you'll have to show up instantly. You're a prisoner, really, and you can only hope that the hotel kitchen will provide something fresh and edible. I was lucky - I waited only four days until they arrived. A gang of four armed and tough men approached and asked me to accompany them. It wasn't clear if this was their way of taking me to the 'Brother Leader' or whether I was being taken for interrogation, detention or expulsion.

Muammar Gadhafi, AP, 2003

"Twenty very tense minutes passed until I saw the giant tent. Inside sat one of the most impressive men I have ever seen. He slowly removed the dark sunglasses he has worn since he was a young junior officer, smiled the smile of someone who had studied with me at school, or someone who wanted to flirt with me. He growled something, and two of his aides hastily arranged comfortable seating for me. Then he began his speech about the history of Libya."

The German journalist who described her experience of interviewing Muammar Gadhafi several years ago noted that the official tent was decorated with quotations from the Koran and was equipped with telephones and a TV set. The large cushions were very comfortable, but something was going on the whole time, she said. Aides came and went, guards hovered over him, and while he was being interviewed, he continued to control affairs of state in a kind of private language, motioning with his head and hands and speaking in whispers.

Still a colonel

The interview took place before the United States and Britain lifted the sanctions that had been imposed on Libya after the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, in which 270 people lost their lives. Since then, many vicissitudes have befallen Col. Gadhafi (who refrained from promoting himself to general in the wake of his military coup in 1969 ).

The Libyan leader has since become a familiar guest in the West, and many items have been added to his fancy wardrobe, which has inspired European designers. Western oil companies have resumed drilling in the Libyan desert that Gadhafi has cultivated with the world's most extensive irrigation system. And his tent has begun traveling from Libya to the capitals of the world.

Citizens of Paris, Rome, Doha, Russia and New Jersey have all had the opportunity - some of them to their great displeasure - to see Gadhafi set up his mobile quarters nearby, and it seems likely he will have no compunctions about pitching his tent in Jerusalem or on the shores of Tel Aviv when a peace agreement is signed with the Palestinians.

On second thought, Gadhafi is capable of showing up in Israel even before a treaty is signed, since for many years he has ignored the Arab League's decisions and has proposed all kinds of creative solutions for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. For example, he has suggested that the name "Isratine" - a combination of Israel and Palestine - be affixed to the binational state he believes will inevitably be set up between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River.

Setting up his tent doesn't take much time. When Gadhafi went to the Arab League summit meeting in Qatar a year ago, his Indian engineer needed only four days to erect the leader's tent, with its crystal chandeliers, cloth walls specially ordered from Italy, ornate wooden furniture and wall-to-wall carpeting. The tent was an exact replica of the original one in Lybia.

Gadhafi, who boasts about his Bedouin origins despite suspicions his biological father was a man named Albert Preziosi, an air force pilot with the Free French during World War II, and no nomad. If he has to spend $300,000 to pitch his tent when he travels, so be it. This sum, by the way, does not cover his large entourage, which includes his fabled female bodyguards, the official cars that travel with him or the fine Berber horses he took along on his last visit to Italy.

There is no shortage of money to fund Gadhafi in the Libyan republic, where the average family earns around $300 per month. It's true that a few years ago he came up with the idea of funneling Libya's oil income to his citizens directly, instead of through the bureaucracy and banking system. His idea was to pay every family monthly royalties, but he ultimately bowed to his advisers. They pointed out that the direct payments could lead to uncontrollable inflation that would destroy the country's economy.

Gadhafi learned his lesson; he also decided that Libya needed professionals to manage the economy and play the international stock markets. To this end, he ordered 20 young Libyans to be sent abroad to study international commerce and investment management. To train them, he engaged the services of a former Merrill Lynch employee, Frederic Marino, who was also entrusted with running a hedge fund for Libya.

'He liked the scenery'

It's almost impossible to know the extent of Gadhafi's personal fortune or how much Libya has invested in other countries. When he took part in the G-8 summit in L'Aquila, Italy, last year, he invested $19 million to build a hotel in a remote town he passed through en route to the conference, because "he liked the scenery there," one of his people explained.

Gadhafi announced recently that he plans to import a diamond-polishing enterprise, complete with all its workers, from India. Through the Libyan investment fund he controls, Gadhafi is also a partner in a diamond business in the Congo. In Gaza, he plans to build 20 new homes in a deal with Austrian tycoon Martin Schlaff, who recently brokered the release of an Israeli citizen from Libya, Rafael Haddad.

Gadhafi is now 68 years old; this month he celebrated his 41st year in power, the longest rule of any Middle Eastern leader. He has eight children - seven sons and one daughter. He also adopted two children, one of whom was killed in 1986, when U.S. planes bombed his residence. In any case, only two of his sons are considered possible successors: Saif al-Islam, who is in charge of diplomatic affairs, and Moatassem-Billah, the country's national security adviser.

But Gadhafi is not yet considering retiring, and the Libyan opposition is not strong enough to threaten his regime. His agents, who have liquidated opposition members both at home and abroad, make sure of that. So Gadhafi's tent will continue to be pitched in different parts of the world, offering the best political circus in town.