Libyan foreign minister flees country after revelation of Israel meeting


CAIRO — Libya’s foreign minister fled to Turkey this week after protests erupted over revelations of a closed-door meeting with her Israeli counterpart, exposing the limits of Israel’s push to normalize relations with its Arab neighbors.

Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen announced Sunday that he had met secretly in Italy last week with Najla el-Mangoush, foreign minister for Libya’s Tripoli-based government, touting “the great potential for relations” between the two countries. For Israel, the meeting with Libya’s top diplomat represented the latest milestone in its effort, facilitated by the United States, to establish diplomatic ties with once-hostile Middle Eastern countries.

But in Libya, which does not recognize Israel, and where public sentiment remains staunchly supportive of the Palestinian cause, it sparked an outpouring of anger and a scramble by Prime Minister Abdulhamid Dbeibah to contain the fallout.

Libya’s prime minister fired the country’s foreign minister on Aug. 28, in an effort to contain growing anger after she met with her Israeli counterpart. (Video: Reuters)

Protests broke out in western Libyan cities overnight on Sunday and Monday, with demonstrators setting fire to tires and Israeli flags — and, according to reports in local media, a home belonging to the prime minister. Protesters also stormed the gates of the Foreign Ministry in Tripoli, though security guards prevented them from breaching the building.

The public announcement by the Israelis appeared to take the government in Tripoli by surprise. Dbeibah sought to pin the blame on Mangoush, whom he suspended on Monday and referred for internal investigation. Mangoush flew to Turkey on Monday after news of the meeting broke, the Associated Press reported. The state security service put out a statement Monday denying having facilitated her flight.

The protests in Libya highlight the persistence of anti-Israel sentiment in the region even as a new generation of leaders in the Gulf and North Africa seek to build economic, technological and security ties with their former adversary.

In Libya, a 1957 law makes it illegal to normalize ties with Israel. Former dictator Moammar Gaddafi maintained a strong anti-Israel stance throughout his more than 40-year rule. A decade after his ouster, only 7 percent of Libyans favored Arab states normalizing relations with Israel, according to a 2021-2022 survey by the research network Arab Barometer.

News of the Rome meeting fast became a political scandal in the war-torn country, which remains divided between Dbeibah’s Western-backed government in Tripoli and a rival administration supported by warlord Khalifa Hifter in the east.

Opponents of Dbeibah seized the opportunity to call for his ouster. Khaled Elmeshri, the former head of a top governing body, wrote on Facebook that the government had crossed “all legal, national and religious red lines” and therefore “must be overturned.”

Dbeibah likely pursued the meeting to curry favor with Washington, at a time when the United Nations is seeking a new interim government before a nationwide vote, according to Wolfram Lacher, a Libya analyst at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs.

“The entire meeting only makes sense as an effort by Dbeibah to mobilize U.S. support for his staying in power,” he said. But it now appears part of a “pattern of ill-judged foreign policy choices that seem to be out of sync with Libyan public opinion.”

Libya’s revolution was derailed by ‘deadly cocktail,’ envoy says. U.N. now sees glimmers of hope.

The controversy has thrown his government into damage-control mode, with the Foreign Ministry seeking to downplay the discussion between Mangoush and Cohen as “an informal and unprepared meeting” in a statement late Sunday.

But Dbeibah was involved in planning the meeting, according to a Libyan security official with knowledge of the situation, who spoke to The Washington Post on the condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive matter.

A spokesman for Dbeibah did not respond to a request for comment.

The government statement reiterated Libya’s “complete and absolute rejection of normalization with the Zionist entity,” and Dbeibah visited the Palestinian Embassy in Tripoli on Monday to emphasize Libya’s support for the Palestinian cause. He conveyed that Mangoush’s stance “does not represent the government of Libya and its people,” according to a statement from the Palestinian Foreign Ministry.

In Israel, Cohen has been slammed for fumbling Israel’s diplomatic outreach to its Arab neighbors at a critical time. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is eager to build on the U.S.-brokered Abraham Accords, under which Israel has established formal diplomatic relations with a number of Arab countries in recent years, including the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco.

Israeli representatives are currently engaged in unofficial talks between Washington and Saudi Arabia on agreements that might lead to new ties between Riyadh and Jerusalem, according to diplomats familiar with the process.

Saudi Arabia has already lifted restrictions on Israeli flights in its airspace, shaving hours off travel to the Gulf region and Southeast Asia. Late Monday, a flight experiencing electrical problems between Tel Aviv and the Seychelles was able to make an emergency landing in Jeddah, which would have been unthinkable just a few years ago.

In the past, normalization agreements between Israel and Arab countries were preceded by years of unofficial, underground connections where discretion was paramount. Israel worked secretly with the Emirates for decades on security and intelligence issues, fearing just the sort of backlash that erupted in Libya.

Inside the secret-not-secret courtship between Israel and the United Arab Emirates

By going public about the meeting with Mangoush, critics said Cohen not only endangered her safety but also risked spooking other governments that might be eyeing a rapprochement with the Jewish state.

“Secret meetings that were never leaked built the relationships that over the years evolved into historic agreements with countries in the region,” Israeli opposition leader Yair Lapid said in a tweet. “The countries of the world are looking this morning at the irresponsible leak about the Israeli and Libyan foreign ministers’ meeting and are asking themselves: Is this a country that we can have foreign relations with?”

Diplomacy with Arab countries has always required finesse, according to Uzi Rabi, director of the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies at Tel Aviv University. In the case of a volatile, nearly failed state like Libya, the contacts are so delicate that they are more a job for clandestine intelligence agencies such as Israel’s Mossad.

“We know these things are happening, but it should be under the radar. The diplomats should come later,” he said. “You can have the contact, but if you wave it about as an achievement, this is the backlash you’re going to get.”

Israel’s triumphal tone was especially jarring, analysts said, given Libya’s weak and embattled government, which lacks the authority to implement any lasting diplomatic agreements.

“It’s highly doubtful what value, what legitimacy normalization undertaken by such a government could have,” Lacher said. “If the U.S. has really been pushing that government toward normalization, this is clearly a strategic mistake.”

The U.S. Embassy for Libya did not respond to a request for comment.

Hendrix reported from Jerusalem. Hazem Balousha in Gaza contributed to this report.


Source link

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *