RAFAH, Occupied Gaza Strip (AP) _ An Israeli businessman who helped to mediate a tour by nearly 200 Libyan pilgrims said today that Libya's leader, Moammar Gadhafi, also wanted to visit the Jewish state.

But Israeli officials and the Libyan visitors tried to distance the trip from politics and described it as a prayer mission.

Still, it was a dramatic policy shift for Libya, one of the Arab world's most outspoken enemies of the Jewish state and a nation that is not party to the Mideast peace talks. Gadhafi also has harbored some of the most extreme Palestinian guerrilla groups.

Yaacov Nimrodi, an Iraqi-born businessman who said he was underwriting the $300,000 pilgrimage, said Gadhafi's secretary told him a month ago that the Libyan leader may visit Israel afterwards.

''I believe it is something that could help the peace process. I believe that Gadhafi will visit this year, God willing,'' Nimrodi, whose business dealings involved him in the Iran-Contra arms sales scandal, said at the Rafah border crossing on the edge of the occupied Gaza Strip.

It is widely believed in Israel that Gadhafi hopes the pilgrimage will help him to rebuild Libya's stature, particularly with the United States. Libya has been subject to repeated international censure, most recently over its refusal to hand over suspects in the 1988 bombing of a Pan Am jet over Lockerbie, Scotland, that killed 270 people.

Israeli newspapers have indicated that the Israelis stalled on agreeing to the pilgrimage planned for months, waiting for Washington to nod approval.

Tourism Minister Uzi Bar-Am greeted the pilgrims as they arrived at the Rafah border station on the edge of the occupied Gaza Strip. Asked whether Israel would welcome Gadhafi, Bar-Am said, ''if he were ready to visit, my reaction is positive.'' But spokesmen for Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Foreign Minister Shimon Peres declined comment.

''We view this visit as totally disconnected from the political issues pertaining to Libya,'' said Rabin spokesman Gad Ben-Ari, reached by telephone. ''We view it on humanitarian religious grounds.''

Foreign Ministry spokesman Eviatar Manor said Gadhafi had not formally asked to visit.

Libyan Jews were expected to pay a reciprocal visit to Libya in July, said Rafael Fellah, a Libyan Jewish leader based in Rome. Gadhafi had expelled most Jews from Libya in the 1960s.

Weary from their 1,800-mile, three-day bus ride from Libya, the pilgrims were quick to dismiss suggestions that their visit meant Libyan recognition of Israel.

''We are not here to see anyone; we are here to see Jerusalem and to pray in Jerusalem,'' said delegation leader, Dow Salem Tajouri, an engineer at the Libyan News Agency.

The pilgrims insisted they had chosen Islamic holy sites in Israel because Libyans had been barred from flying to Saudi Arabia for the Muslim pilgrimage, or hajj. International sanctions on Libya forbid flights from that country, although hundreds, and maybe thousands of Libyans went by road and sea to Saudi Arabia for the hajj.

Tomato farmer Farraj Ali, 53, said they were all frightened as they approached the Israeli frontier. The only Israelis he had ever seen were television footage of soldiers beating Palestinians while quelling riots in Gaza.

''At first we were afraid but when we arrived we found that they were okay they just said good morning to us,'' Ali said.

Another sour memory for Libyans is a jetliner Israel shot down in 1973, killing 100 people, when it strayed over the Negev desert because of a sandstorm in Libya.

Nimrodi said it took five years to negotiate the pilgrimage with the Libyans, with mediation by Saudi businessman Adnan Khashoggi. Khashoggi served as a go-between in the Iran-Contra affair, in which the Reagan administration secretly sold weapons to Iran and illegally diverted the proceeds to the U.S-backed Contra rebels in Nicaragua.

Nimrodi was one of four Israelis subpoenaed in connection with Iran-Contra in 1987. Israel refused to let the four be questioned.