Libyan foreign minister flees country amid outcry over meeting with Israeli counterpart

Patrick Wintour

The Guardian  /  August 30, 2023

Najla al-Mangoush had already been suspended after news of secret meeting with Eli Cohen was released.

Libya’s foreign minister has fled the country after news of a secret meeting in Rome between her and her Israeli counterpart last week was released by the Israeli foreign ministry, causing a political outcry in Tripoli and two nights of street protests across the country.

Najla al-Mangoush had already been suspended by her Tripoli-based prime minister, Abdul Hamid Dbeibah, on Sunday evening when news of the meeting broke. Officials initially claimed the meeting had been a chance affair and not planned.

Dbeibah had put her under investigation but she later claimed she would have not gone ahead with the meeting last week without the knowledge and consent of her prime minister.

She is reported to have flown to Turkey.

It is not clear why the Israeli foreign ministry thought it sensible to brief unilaterally that the meeting between the two sides had occurred since the reaction in the north African state shows how carefully the issue of normalization between Israel and Arab states has to be handled.

Pro-Palestinian protests are relatively rare in Libya, and the outcry is likely to discourage other Arab leaders from seeking closer ties with Israel, especially if the Israeli diplomatic service cannot be trusted to keep confidences.

In an attempt to distance himself from the diplomatic fiasco Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, on Tuesday morning ordered all members of his government to inform him in advance of secret diplomatic exchanges. His office has not been clear if he knew of the meeting beforehand.

The original Israeli statement said the country’s foreign minister, Eli Cohen, and Mangoush, his Libyan counterpart, spoke last week at a meeting in Rome hosted by the Italian foreign minister, Antonio Tajani.

The Israeli statement described it as the first such diplomatic initiative between the two countries.

“I spoke with the foreign minister about the great potential for the two countries from their relations,” Cohen said in a statement issued on Sunday from Israel’s foreign ministry.

Cohen said the two discussed “the importance of preserving the heritage of Libyan Jews, which includes renovating synagogues and Jewish cemeteries in the country”.

“Libya’s size and strategic location offer a huge opportunity for the State of Israel,” he added.

The foreign ministry claimed it had only been confirming a pre-existing leak to a news outlet.

In what looked like an unconvincing cover-up, the Libyan foreign ministry said: “What happened in Rome was a chance and unofficial encounter, during a meeting with his Italian counterpart, which did not involve any discussion, agreement or consultation.”

In a highly divided country with two rival administrations, Dbeibah, dependent on Turkey for his shaky grip on power, can hardly afford a political setback such as this since over the previous month his authority has been challenged by violent clashes in the capital between rival militias.

News of the meeting had sparked protests in some Libyan cities and a letter from the country’s presidential council requesting clarification. Debibah was originally appointed interim prime minister pending national presidential elections after a UN-led process.

When the elections did not take place as planned in December 2021 due to disputes over the eligibility of the candidates and other issues, Dbeibah refused to stand aside. His government, described as the government of national unity, is still recognized by the UN.

The presidential council, which has some executive powers and sprang from the UN-backed political process, includes three members representing the three Libyan provinces, and as a result is one of the few genuinely national institutions in the country.

In a letter the council said this development “does not reflect the foreign policy of the Libyan state, does not represent the Libyan national constants and is considered a violation of Libyan laws which criminalize normalization with the ‘Zionist entity’”.

It asked the head of government “to apply the law if the meeting took place”. Dbeibah had always seemed only to tolerate Mangoush, a student of international relations in his administration, as an appointment made to please the then UN special envoy’s demand, supported by Libyan civil society, for women to be included in his male-dominated cabinet.

The reaction to the meeting is also a blow to Italy’s rightwing prime minister, Giorgia Meloni, who has invested diplomatic capital in trying to secure a deal to stop the flow of illegal migrants from Libya to Italy.

Commercially Italy has a longstanding investment in the profitable but frequently disrupted Libyan oil industry. But her government’s central role as a secret intermediary for the meeting may injure her personal standing in a country vital to Italy’s strategic interests.

The issue of normalization is under strain because Netanyahu’s hardline government has come under intense criticism from Arab states due to the violence in the West Bank and for backing the expansion of Jewish settlements.

But the whole premise of Israeli normalization of relations with Libya was contentious since there are two administrations in the country. Even the head of the Libyan Jewish Union, Raphael Luzon, claimed he had advised against the meeting.

But it is possible there had been a previous series of secret meetings, and perhaps not confined to the Tripoli administration. The head of the Libyan national army in the east, close politically to the United Arab Emirates, a country that has restored relations with Israel, might also have been willing to normalize relations with Jerusalem at a future date.

Patrick Wintour is diplomatic editor for The Guardian