Report of Israeli-Libyan Diplomacy Effort Sets Off Storm of Protests

A rash Israeli statement on Libya and the chaos at Tripoli could hurt not merely the possibility of the two countries’ relations, but also future attempts at widening the Abraham Accords.

AP/Yousef Murad
Protesters burn a shirt showing the Israeli foreign minister, Eli Cohen, and his Libyan counterpart, Najla Mangoush, at Tripoli, Libya, August 27, 2023. AP/Yousef Murad

A storm erupted over the Middle East on Sunday after Foreign Minister Eli Cohen of Israel disclosed a meeting at Rome with his Tripoli counterpart, Najla Mangoush, who was consequently forced to flee. Can relations be repaired?

The Biden administration is reportedly livid at Mr. Cohen for issuing a statement that could hurt not merely the possibility of Israel-Libya relations, but also future attempts at widening the Abraham Accords to other Arab countries. Yet, Libya’s internal turmoil may well be as detrimental a factor in the collapse of talks as Jeruslaem’s ill-conceived statement.

A divided tribal country with two competing governments, rival armed militias, a strong militant Islamist presence, and endless pressures from neighbors and faraway powers with competing interests seems hardly the best candidate for an Arab-Israeli breakthrough. Yet, last week one appeared closer than ever. 

In a foreign ministry statement, Mr. Cohen said Sunday that during a meeting at Rome a week ago, he and Ms. Mangoush talked about the “great potential for the two countries from their relations.” Hours later, the Tripoly foreign ministry countered that the two merely had “a chance and unofficial encounter.”

Large protests erupted against the American- and UN-backed Tripoli government, which is competing for legitimacy with a Benghazi-based structure ruled with an iron hand by Field Marshall Khalifa Haftar. In contrast, Tripoli’s prime minister, Abdul Hamid Dbeibah, is a weak leader whose term in office lapsed two years ago. 

As anti-Israel protests intensified across the country, Mr. Dbeibah said the unauthorized Rome meeting was initiated by Ms. Mangoush, and he proceeded to first suspend and later fire his foreign minister, who fled to Turkey. Sources at Rome, Washington, and Jerusalem insisted though that Ms. Mangoush went to Rome for a long-planned meeting that was authorized at all levels of Mr. Dbeibah’s government.

The premier was apparently spooked by the street reaction to Mr. Cohen’s statement. “The protest at Tripoli started with Palestinian activists and was quickly joined by Islamists and factions hostile to Dbeibah,” a Tel Aviv-based journalist with ties in Libya and Israel, Pazit Ravina, tells the Sun.

“The Rome meeting was well planned,” Ms. Ravina says. “Foreign Minister Antonio Tajani hosted it at an official government house. Both sides agreed to publicize their agreements — but only after Dbeibah could politically sell it at home. Cohen jumped the gun.”

Jerusalem officials say Mr. Cohen acted only after learning that the fact of the meeting was already leaked to the press. Prime Minister Netanyahu’s critics, though, counter that his government officials too often compete over credit for diplomatic breakthroughs, and sabotage clandestine ties through premature publicity.    

At Tripli, meanwhile, Ms. Mangoush has no domestic constituency as foreign minister. Being a woman hardly helps in a country where Islamists maintain constant pressure on those in power. Yet, as an American-educated lawyer with deep understanding of Western politics, she was an asset for Mr. Dbeibah, who craves the support of Washington, Rome, and others in the West. By Monday, though, he threw her under the bus.

Politically a basket case since Mohammed Qaddafi’s autocratic rule ended in 2011 as part of the revolt known as the Arab Spring, Libya is large, strategically placed, and oil-rich. Yet, Washington overlooked these factors for a long time. 

As the Russian Wagner group’s influence grew in Libya, and as President Biden sought additional oil supplies, emissaries started appearing at Tripoli, pressuring Mr. Dbeibah to conduct a new election and promising aid and other forms of support. One topic at a January Tripoli visit by the CIA chief, Nicolas Burns, was the idea of formalizing already-existing relations with Jerusalem.    

Libya’s former colonial power, Italy, was another active go-between. Prime Minister Maloney, who is close with Mr. Netanyahu, offered to push up a date to establish direct Tripli-Rome flights as incentive for a Libyan-Israeli treaty. Before that, the Israeli foreign ministry and Mossad officials have for at least three years secretly met with Libyan counterparts, cultivating ties with Mr. Dbeibah as well as his rival, General Haftar.

The dynamic of Israel’s relations with Libya is similar to the much-publicized ties with Saudi Arabia — “except for one crucial difference,” Ms. Ravina says: While the Saudis’ de facto leader, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, is well entrenched in power, Mr. Dbeibah “is holding on to dear life” as the head of the Tripoli government. 

Mr. Dbeibah failed to publicly explain to Libyans how peace with Israel would benefit the country, and Mr. Cohen’s rush to publicize a meeting set back any prospect of completing a deal. Yet, efforts at widening the base of Mideast allies may not end there. 

While the latest episode “can be seen as a lesson in the perils of engaging a country like Libya, which is still in the grip of political vigilantism, there is some cold comfort, perhaps, in the fact that the Abraham Accords are maintaining their allure beyond the current circle of peace,” the CEO of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, Mark Dubowitz, said Monday. 

The New York Sun

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