One has to be naive to believe that Libya’s former Foreign Minister, Najla Al-Mangoush, unwarily and innocently walked into a meeting hosted by the Italian Foreign Minister and found Eli Cohen, Israel’s Foreign Minister, and, out of courtesy, shook his hand and that was it. This is what Ms. Al-Mangoush and her unprofessional aides wanted us to believe, by issuing a hollow statement when Zionist Cohen broke the news about their secret meeting in Rome last week. And one has to be twice as dumb to believe that her boss, Abdul Hamid Dbeibeh, had no idea about the meeting, until Tripoli erupted in protest around him.
What happened in Rome is part of a process. Mr. Dbeibeh wanted to test the public reaction to the idea of openly embracing the Israelis. It is also a part of the United States’ drive to help apartheid Israel normalise ties with more Arab countries as part of the 2020 Abraham Accords.
Last February, Libya’s Minister of Labour, Ali Al-Ridha, suddenly appeared at a meeting with Palestinian Prime Minister, Mohammad Shtayyeh, in the West Bank. Mr. Shtayyeh, naively, said that such a visit “does not mean normalisation” with the Occupation State. The visit was camouflaged as another way of helping Palestine by contracting hundreds of Palestinian professionals to work in Libya. None of that is true and not a single Palestinian professional has arrived in Libya, so far.
In January, 2022, William Burns, CIA Director, was in Tripoli and met Mr. Dbeibeh in a “rare” secret visit to Libya. Libyans reacted angrily to Mr. Burns’ visit, questioning its timing and objectives. However, their reaction to Mr. Al-Ridha’s West Bank visit was somewhat muted, apart from the outrage on social media, perhaps because of the claim that he was there to help the Palestinians. The top American spy came to push for a few things, including normalisation with Israel, encouraging his hosts to follow the example of four Arab states that recently normalised with Tel Aviv.
Prime Minister Dbeibeh would certainly do anything to stay in power for longer. He is now under pressure from the United Nations and other regional powers, pushing to prepare for elections to form a new government without him.
His understanding of American policy towards Libya is naive at best. He is desperate to make Washington happy and receiving William Burns was part of that charm. Before meeting Burns he, unashamedly, arranged for the kidnap and the illegal handover of a Libyan citizen, falsely accused of making the bomb that destroyed Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988.
What Al-Mangoush did in Rome is another step in the same direction. But both Al-Mangoush and Dbeibeh failed to gauge the reaction of the Libyan people when it comes to Palestine.
On Tuesday morning, Dbeibeh tried some damage control by visiting the Palestinian Embassy in Tripoli to express his support for Palestine but even that has, so far, failed to mute the public condemnations of him, his former Foreign Minister and his government. The overwhelming majority want him out today, despite his suspension of Al-Mangoush, ordering an investigation and, ultimately, firing her. But, by that time, she had already fled the country on board a private plane with no official explanation of how that happened yet—this only increased the outrage.
The Internal Security Agency which is responsible for airport security, denied that its agents “helped or facilitated” Al-Mangoush to flee. In a Facebook statement, the Agency said the former minister was on the list of those “banned from leaving the country” and that she did not appear at the airport and that “the security cameras” would confirm that.
This raises more questions, such as how could such a high profile figure leave the country on board a private plane without the authorities knowing? If we are to believe this, it means that a foreign power, such as Turkiye, which controls military bases near Tripoli, facilitated her escape. Her journey ended in the United Kingdom, after a brief stop in Istanbul. Will Dbeibeh ask for her extradition to account for her actions, as part of the investigation? Very unlikely, because accountability is not part of his lexicon and, more importantly, Al-Mangoush in court means more serious trouble for him.
Libya has never recognised Israel and, under the late Muammar Gaddafi, has been a strong supporter of the Palestinians. Much of Gaddafi’s image as a “global terrorist” is attributed to this. In his usual lengthy speeches, Gaddafi, for forty years, educated his people about how just the Palestinian cause is and how dangerous Israel is to the entire region. Jerusalem was the password for his 1969 revolution.
Also, Libyan Law number 62 criminalises any contact with Israel, let alone by public officials. Article 1 of the Law, in effect since 1957, prohibits any “natural person or legal entity” from making any direct or indirect “agreements” of any kind with any “Israeli entity” or persons, including those who take “residence” in Israel.
Palestine is a very sensitive issue in Libya and the majority of Libyans reject any kind of normalisation with Tel Aviv, let alone that of their own country. Only seven per cent of Libyans surveyed last year said they approve of ties with Israel.
One of the great legacies of the late Gaddafi is making Palestine central to Libya’s foreign policy and educating his people about the conflict, often citing history. Hundreds of Libyans volunteered to fight Israel when it was first created over seven decades ago. At least three men from my own extended family, including my late father-in-law, fought in Palestine and there is a whole section devoted to their memories in Libya’s National Archives.
Many believe that the Western invasion of Libya in 2011 that toppled Gaddafi and eventually murdered him was, in part, because of his position on Palestine. They cite the well documented role played by the Jewish French philosopher, Bernard-Henry Levy, in spearheading support for what was called “Libyan Revolution”.
Both Al-Mangoush and her boss, Dbeibeh, failed to predict how united Libyans could be when it comes to Palestine. Almost all political figures, political parties and even state institutions condemned the secret Rome meeting and have called for an investigation.
Even Libya’s dismissed Mufti, Sadiq Al-Garhyani’s Fatwa House issued a statement describing the meeting as an “attack on the constants of the homeland and religion”. The eastern based Parliament called for Al-Mangoush’s punishment and for the government to resign. The Higher Council of State, in a statement, expressed its “surprise” at the meeting, while calling for an investigation. Libya’s Presidential Council asked for an explanation, while emphasising that what happened has nothing to do with Libyan foreign policy.
Will Dbeibeh give up on any attempt to normalise with Israel? Not if it helps him stay in power. But Libyans will be there too to oust him, if he tries again.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.