What the latest Libya debacle tells us about U.S. and Israeli indifference to Libyan lives

Mitchell Plitnick

Mondoweiss  /  August 29, 2023

As protests broke out in Libya following an intentional leak that Israel’s Foreign Minister met with his Libyan counterpart, it became clear that neither Biden nor Israel mind endangering Libyan lives.

The foreign minister of Libya’s United Nations-recognized government, Najla Mangoush, was reportedly forced to flee the country in the wake of her ouster and furious protests stirred by reports of her having met with Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen. The ostensibly secret meeting was supposed to have been confidential, but Cohen proudly trumpeted the confab, in an apparent attempt to score domestic political points. 

Libya remains a divided country, split between the government in Tripoli, which enjoys recognition from the UN and much of the world and is headed by Prime Minister Abdulhamid al-Dbeibah, and the eastern part of the country, controlled by the opposition under the leadership of Khalifa Haftar. According to reports, both Haftar and Dbeibah, who was Mangoush’s boss, were aware of the meeting between the foreign ministers of Libya and Israel, but naturally, no one is admitting that. 

Instead, Mangoush is taking the fall, likely for acting according to the wishes of her superiors, as well as with the knowledge of the opposition. If that were actually demonstrated to be the case, the resulting outrage would surely set back the already struggling efforts in Libya to mend the country after NATO essentially destroyed the government in ousting Muammar Ghadafi by force in 2011. 

According to one expert on Libya, Jalel Harchaoui of the Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies in the UK, “PM Dbeibah followed the temptation to pull some kind of a diplomatic stunt, but his attempt went awry.”

The stunt was in response to pressure on two fronts. One was from the United Nations, which has been pressing both sides in the Libyan conflict to hold national elections as agreed eight years ago, but which have been delayed by various disagreements between the two sides. 

The other, which more specifically impacted this decision, was from the United States, where Joe Biden’s mindless obsession with brokering normalization agreements between Israel and Arab states has reached new heights of recklessness. The Biden administration has been talking with Dbeibah about a normalization deal, and Dbeibah has reportedly been “open” to the idea. Haftar, for his part, is well known to be on good terms with the Israeli government, with his son having visited Israel in 2021 and offered Israel normal relations in exchange for backing Haftar in his struggle with Dbeibah. 

American indifference to the will of the people

It’s no coincidence that Haftar is backed by the United Arab Emirates and Egypt, although more recently, the UAE has been trying to facilitate elections and the end of the Libyan civil war that has raged on for twelve years. These are two of Israel’s key Arab allies. The United States saw this as an opportunity to once again expand the Abraham Accords but showed no regard for the sentiments of the Libyan people.

Libya has long been a staunch supporter of the Palestinian cause, even if its leadership has been much fickler. Indeed, an incident almost two decades ago was very similar to this one. The U.S., U.K., and Qatar had facilitated a meeting between Libyan and Israeli officials in Vienna in 2004. Israel leaked word of the meeting and Libyan leader Muammar Ghadafi condemned the leak, ended talks, and spoke forcefully (however self-servingly, given the circumstances) of Libya’s support for the Palestinian cause.

Doubtless, Dbeibah is feeling something similar to what Ghadafi felt in 2004. In both cases, the leaks came about because of Israel’s desire to score political points by demonstrating their ability to conclude deals with Arab states without making concessions to the Palestinians. In 2004, it was Ariel Sharon’s government; in 2023, it was Benjamin Netanyahu’s — but in both cases, it was the worst kind of diplomatic breach. Governments speak to each other confidentially all the time. When one leaks such meetings for political gain, it is a diplomatic cardinal sin. 

This is especially so regarding Israel and Libya, a country which, in 1957, made contact with Israeli officials a crime, punishable by up to nine years in prison. The Palestinian cause is overwhelmingly popular in Libya, and sentiment against Israel is strong. 

Yet the United States pressed Libyan leaders to find a way to normalize relations with Israel. The magnitude of the foolishness and irresponsibility in doing this is stunning even for the U.S., and even under an administration that has proven itself time and again to be inept at dealing with the Middle East and, at best, indifferent to the lives of the people who live there. 

Considering the enormous responsibility the United States has for the chaos that has engulfed Libya for the past dozen years, one might think that there would be some sense of care to avoid stirring up even more trouble. That is especially so for Biden, who was vice president at the time of the U.S.-led intervention in Libya and had opposed the action. Yet, even though his arguments against toppling the Libyan government actually turned out to be correct, he later said in 2016 that “NATO got it right in Libya.” Why was that? Because no Americans were killed. 

The blatant racism on display in that statement, and the utter disregard for Arab lives in Libya serve as a prelude for Biden’s policies now. Rather than learning the lessons that he seemingly understood in 2011, Biden has doubled down on his racism from 2016. 

Pressing Dbeibah to normalize with Israel at a time when the conflict in Libya might have a chance at resolution is an act so callous and reckless that it must be condemned. The United States already has much to answer for in Libya, even if the overwhelming majority of Americans have forgotten about what we did there, and too many of those who do remember look back at it fondly, as Biden does. But what is at stake here is even greater.

The last few years have seen a divided Libya, but also much less fighting between the two sides. Still, there remains a great deal of foreign involvement in Libya. If the current quiet in Libya should break down, the potential for a wider, regional conflict could grow. The United States, for its part, generally maintains support for the Tripoli government, but that support is questionable, given the Donald Trump administration’s reported clandestine dealings with Haftar through the notorious former Blackwater mercenary, Erik Prince, and even more considering Trump’s own declared support for Haftar. 

An untrustworthy partner

That was the atmosphere in which Joe Biden chose to press Libyan leaders to infuriate their populace by normalizing relations with Israel. 

The Abraham Accords have fallen on difficult times. The Trump-era deal that Biden has obsessively tried, and failed, to make his own has not grown as the United States had hoped. Indeed, one of its signatories, Sudan, had to freeze the process because of internal turmoil and because the deal itself was unpopular there. The countries that have agreed to normalize relations with Israel have found that it is causing them difficulty due to Israel’s increasingly authoritarian and violent behavior toward the Palestinians and, in some cases, has not brought the benefits they expected. 

Cohen’s decision to leak the news of his meeting with Mangoush raised quite a few hackles in Washington. On Sunday, U.S. officials voiced their displeasure to the Israeli foreign ministry. Doubling down on the dishonesty, Israeli officials claimed that the Americans did not protest Cohen’s actions. When Israeli journalist Barak Ravid asked his contacts in the U.S. government if there had been a protest, they told him, “You bet there was.”

Israeli officials tried to claim that there was “ an understanding during the meeting that it would eventually become public.” U.S. officials made it clear there was no such understanding, and of course, there was not. It is inconceivable that Libyan officials would possibly have agreed to publicize a meeting to explore normalization with Israel while Israel is making the news every day for its accelerated violence against Palestinians.

Israeli government leaders from the opposition have rightly blasted the Netanyahu government for this breach of diplomatic trust. Yair Lapid called the incident “amateurish, irresponsible and a serious failure in judgement,” while Benny Gantz tweeted that “When you do everything for PR and headlines, with zero responsibility and forward thinking – this is what happens…This is a morning of national disgrace and endangering of human life for a headline.”

The Israeli breach underlines the lack of trustworthiness of the Israeli government, something we have seen is not unique to the current crop of radicals. Yet, the U.S. is complaining that Israel has made it even harder to find a way forward on normalization — as if this was their concern, not Israel’s. This time, they are adding that this action jeopardized U.S. security, which it did, but they are still determined to give this great gift to Israel despite Israeli officials publicly stating they will not cooperate in the process.

The situation has gone beyond absurdity. No matter what Israel does, and regardless of how much disdain it shows for U.S. efforts to reach these normalization deals, Biden continues to bend over backwards to try to strike new deals for normalization between Israel and Arab states. He is doing this despite the absence of any significant U.S. stake in such deals. 

This time, though, Biden has endangered a country that spent the better part of a decade in a bloody civil war that the United States played a huge role in setting off, and which has finally gotten to a point where things have quieted enough that a way forward might finally be at hand. Israel, in endangering Libyan officials and threatening to spark unrest, was acting with characteristic bad faith. The United States, however, is ultimately responsible, again, for risking lives in Libya. That it did so for ephemeral gains, at best, is appalling even by American standards. 

Mitchell Plitnick is the president of ReThinking Foreign Policy; he is the co-author, with Marc Lamont Hill, of Except for Palestine: The Limits of Progressive Politics