Libya’s foreign minister fired after meeting Israeli counterpart 

Elis Gjevori

Middle East Eye  /  August 28, 2023

The Israeli foreign ministry described the meeting as historic, though Libya’s government denies that it was planned.

Libya’s Foreign Minister Najla al-Mangoush has been dismissed from her post after she met her Israeli counterpart in Italy last week.

Her dismissal, first reported by Al-Jazeera, comes after she was suspended from her role on Sunday and shortly afterwards fled the country and headed to Turkey.

There is also mounting pressure on the Libyan government to explain how Mangoush left Libya when she was on a list of people barred from leaving the country pending the conclusion of an investigation. 

The meeting between Mangoush and Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen was a first for the two countries. 

Libya and Israel have no official ties and the meeting between the two ministers sparked protests in Tripoli and other cities in the country. Protesters were seen waving Palestinian flags and blocking roads. 

The news about their meeting was first announced by Cohen, who said: “I spoke with the [Libyan] foreign minister about the great potential for the two countries from their relations.”

The Israeli side portrayed the meeting as a first step towards normalization. 

Since 2020, Israel has normalized ties with the United Arab EmiratesBahrainMorocco and Sudan in a series of deals brokered by the United States. Saudi Arabia is also reported to be considering normalizing ties with Israel.

Following Cohen’s announcement and the backlash, the head of Libya’s Tripoli-based Government of National Unity (GNU), Abdulhamid al-Dbeibah, suspended Mangoush and referred her to an investigation.

Libya’s foreign ministry said Mangoush had rejected a meeting with representatives of Israel and that what had occurred was “an unprepared, casual encounter”.

The Libyan ministry’s statement said the interaction did not include “any discussions, agreements or consultations”, and added the ministry “renews its complete and absolute rejection of normalization” with Israel.

An Israeli official then seemed to contradict that account telling Reuters that the meeting had been agreed in advance “at the highest levels” in Libya and lasted more than two hours. 

The Israeli official said that “the Libya prime minister sees Israel as a possible bridge to the West and the US administration”. 

That account also seems to tally with what two Libyan officials told The Associated Press (AP). 

One official told the AP that meeting was officially coordinated last month when Dbeibah was on a visit to Italy meeting his counterpart Giorgia Meloni. 

On her return to Libya, Mangoush immediately briefed the Libyan prime minister after she met the Israeli foreign minister, said another Libyan official.  

The accounts also seemingly contradict the statements released by the foreign ministry that the meeting happened without the knowledge of the Dbeibah and was uncoordinated.

According to reports, the prospect of normalization between Libya and Israel was first discussed in a meeting between Dbeibah and CIA Director William Burns, who visited the country in January. 

Burns, according to reports, had encouraged Dbeibah’s government to join the four other Arab countries and normalize relations with Israel. 

While Dbeibah gave initial approval to the idea he was worried about the public backlash in a country that has long shown strong support and aid for the Palestinians. 

Italian broker

The meeting was facilitated by Italian Foreign Minister Antonio Tajani, Israel’s foreign ministry said, adding they had discussed possible cooperation and Israeli aid in humanitarian issues, agriculture and water management.

Cohen said he had also spoken to Mangoush about the importance of preserving Jewish heritage in Libya.

It’s important not to assume that the meeting between Mangoush and Cohen was pushed by the US, said Libya expert Jalel Harchaoui and associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute. 

“I mean, typically the attitude of the US is to say, if you can normalize relations with Israel, it’s a good thing, but it’s not pushing specifically one country or another. Usually it’s the initiative of the nation,” Harchaoui told Middle East Eye

Similarly, Saudi Arabia’s Mohammed bin Salman, said Harchaoui, has gone to the US and has given a list of things it wants, and if they get these “goodies and gifts, maybe Saudi Arabia will consider normalization.”

It’s more likely that Dbeibah has assumed that the US would appreciate the gesture, said Harchaoui.

Italy’s role in making the meeting happen should also not be understated. 

The Italian premier is very close to the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Meloni “would also love to show a foreign policy victory”, said Harchaoui. 

“We know that it happened in Rome and it couldn’t have happened without the active facilitation and help of the Meloni government.”

Israeli fallout

In Israel, Cohen’s public announcement of the secret meeting has been called a “diplomatic farce”, with critics saying the fallout has possibly set back the country’s diplomatic overtures to other countries.

Israeli analyst Yonatan Touval said that foreign ministry officials were dismayed by Cohen’s public announcement.

“Israeli FM Eli Cohen seeks a headline as a junkie craves a fix,” Touval quoted senior diplomatic officials as telling him. “In his quest for a quick fix, he’s throwing Israeli diplomacy down the drain.”

Israeli opposition politician and former prime minister Yair Lapid said that Cohen had seriously undermined Israel’s credibility on the international stage. 

In a series of posts on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter, Lapid said that today many countries will be wondering whether Israel is a “country with which we can conduct foreign relations? Is this a country you can trust?”

“This is what happens when you appoint Eli Cohen, a person with no background in the field, as foreign minister for only one year,” Lapid said.

Internal divisions

Any Israeli effort to strengthen ties with Libya could be complicated by Libya’s bitter internal divisions. The country is divided between the GNU, which rules the west, and an administration in the east dominated by eastern commander Khalifa Haftar.

Libya’s GNU was installed in early 2021 through a UN-backed peace process but its legitimacy has been challenged since early 2022 by the eastern-based parliament after a failed attempt to hold an election.

Previous foreign policy moves by the GNU, including agreements it has reached with Turkey, have been rejected by the parliament and subject to legal challenges.

Repeated international efforts, driven largely by the United Nations, have failed to result in a unified government, though some headway was made when the Libyan central bank earlier this month said it was reunifying.

Elis Gjevori is a journalist based in Istanbul


Libya’s Foreign Minister Najla al-Mangoush dismissed: Sources

Al-Jazeera  /  August 28, 2023

Israel’s foreign minister announced he met Najla al-Mangoush in Rome, causing protests to erupt across Libya.

Libyan Foreign Minister Najla al-Mangoush, under fire for meeting with her Israeli counterpart, has been dismissed, according to senior sources in the government.

Reporting from Tripoli, Al-Jazeera’s Malik Traina said sources close to Prime Minister Abdul Hamid Dbeibah reported Al-Mangoush’s dismissal after an earlier announcement of an investigation into her meeting with Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen last week in Rome.

Al-Mangoush has been the subject of much speculation since yesterday’s announcement by Cohen, which set off large protests across Libya, including rumours that she had left the country.

Libya’s Internal Security Service responded by denying reports that it had allowed or facilitated her departure and announcing that she was on the list of people barred from travelling.

Announcement angered Israelis

The political row broke out Sunday after Israel’s foreign ministry said the two countries’ top diplomats met the previous week in a meeting hosted by Italian Foreign Minister Antonio Tajani.

“I spoke with the foreign minister about the great potential for the two countries from their relations,” Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen said in a statement from Israel’s foreign ministry, adding that it was the first such diplomatic initiative between the two countries.

The news was not well-received in Israel, with commentators remarking that Cohen’s behaviour was a breach of acceptable diplomatic practice.

Israel’s Channel 12 commented that Cohen’s announcement had seriously damaged Israel’s credibility.

Opposition politician Yair Lapid agreed, saying on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter, that Cohen’s action had made countries doubt the suitability of Israel as a foreign relations partner.

TWEET – YAIR LAPID :  Translation: 1/3 of the countries of the world are looking this morning at the irresponsible leak of the Israel–Libya foreign ministers meeting, and asking themselves: Is this a country with which we can conduct foreign relations ? Is this a country you can trust ? This is what happens when you appoint Eli Cohen, a person with no background in the field, as foreign minister for only one year.

Reporting from West Jerusalem, Al-Jazeera’s Harry Fawcett said: “[An Israeli] foreign ministry spokesman said that it was a coordinated meeting, it was not something accidental bumping into, it was a deliberate, direct session of talks with Italian foreign minister in attendance.”

He added that the Israeli foreign ministry also said there had been coordination between the two sides on the content of an announcement, but that the timing had not been agreed upon, surprising the Libyan side when Cohen made his statement.

The Libyan foreign ministry said Al-Mangoush had “refused to meet with any party” representing Israel, and that the meeting was “a chance and unofficial encounter… which did not involve any discussion, agreement or consultation”. It also accused Israel of trying to “present this incident” as a “meeting or talks”.

The North African country does not recognize Israel nor does it have diplomatic relations with Tel Aviv. Under a 1957 Libyan law, dealing with Israel is punishable by up to nine years in prison.

Path to normalization ?

According to The Associated Press, an anonymous Libyan government official said the normalization of relations between Libya and Israel was first discussed in a meeting with Dbeibah and CIA Director William Burns, who visited the Libyan capital in January.

According to the official, Burns proposed that Dbeibah’s government, which is recognized as Libya’s internationally backed government, join the group of four Arab countries that normalized relations with Israel under the US-brokered Abraham Accords in 2020.

The Libyan premier gave initial agreement but was concerned about public backlash in a country known for its support for the Palestinian cause, the official said.

On Monday, an Israeli official told the Reuters news agency that the meeting between Al-Mangoush and Cohen was agreed in advance “at the highest levels” in Libya and lasted more than an hour.

Separately, Israel’s former foreign minister and prime minister Yair Lapid criticized Cohen for going public with the sensitive meeting.

“Countries of the world this morning are looking at the irresponsible leak of the meeting of the Israeli and Libyan foreign minister and asking themselves: Is it possible to manage foreign relations with this country? Is it possible to trust this country?” Lapid said in a statement.

Israel has normalized relations with some Arab countries in recent years as part of US-backed deals known as the Abraham Accords.

However, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s hardline government has come under intense criticism from Arab states because of surging violence in the occupied West Bank and for backing the expansion of Jewish settlements in the occupied territory.

Overnight protests

Dbeibeh had replaced Al-Mangoush with Fathallah al-Zani, the current youth minister, as interim foreign minister.

Videos on social media showed demonstrations in front of the foreign ministry building in Tripoli on Sunday night, calling for Al-Mangoush’s dismissal. Some protesters also called for Dbeibah’s resignation, setting fire to his residence in Tripoli.

Al-Jazeera’s Malik Traina said: “Protesters in Al-Zawiya were calling for the downfall of the entire government due to this meeting, and people were closing down roads and burning tyres in Tajoura and Soug al-Jumaa. We saw other protests in Misrata.”

Traina said both legislative bodies, the Tripoli-based High Council of State and the Tobruk-based House of Representatives (HoR), have condemned the meeting and called for an emergency session to discuss it, with the HoR describing the meeting as a “crime committed against the Libyan people”.

Earlier on Sunday evening, Libya’s Presidential Council asked the government for “clarifications”, according to Libya Al-Ahrar TV, citing spokesperson Najwa Wheba.

The Presidential Council, which has some executive powers and sprang from the UN-backed political process, includes three members representing the three Libyan regions.

Their request said the meeting “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’”.