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The Libya people have spoken, and ties with Israel are forced back into the shadows

August 31, 2023 at 10:30 pm

Group of people burn tires and block roads to protest Libya’s Foreign Minister’s meeting with Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen in Tajura town of Tripoli, Libya on August 27, 2023 [Hazem Turkia – Anadolu Agency]

As protests erupted throughout the Libyan capital, Tripoli, and other cities in the country in response to the Foreign Minister’s secret meeting with her Israeli counterpart last week, it served as a stark reminder of the rampant disconnect between the country’s political leaderships and the general population, along with those of the wider Arab world.

On Sunday, the Israeli Foreign Ministry boastingly revealed the meeting that took place in the Italian capital, Rome, between Libyan Foreign Minister, Najla Al-Mangoush, and her Israeli counterpart, Eli Cohen, with the latter stating that they spoke “about the great potential for the two countries from their relations” and asserting that “Libya’s size and strategic location offer a huge opportunity for the State of Israel”.

That set into motion a rapid series of events that represented societal backlash in the form of street protests throughout Libya and diplomatic backlash in the form of Libya’s internationally-recognised Prime Minister, Abdul Hamid Dbeibeh, suspending Mangoush, putting her under investigation and leading her to flee to Turkiye.

Amid those events, it was not clear whether Dbeibeh and his government had planned and lent support for the secret meeting – hosted by Italian Foreign Minister, Antonio Tajani – or whether Mangoush and Cohen had initiated it themselves. Initially, officials claimed the meeting was a coincidental and unplanned affair, but Mangoush later insisted that she would not have engaged in the talks without the approval of Prime Minister Dbeibeh. 

That seemed to be confirmed by a Libyan political source with intimate knowledge of situation, who told Middle East Monitor that Dbeibeh “asked the Italians to arrange this meeting” and that “my associates have played a pivotal role in this encounter”.

Despite that, Dbeibeh has outright condemned the meeting, causing media outlets to automatically report that he vehemently opposes normalisation efforts with Israel. By suspending and investigating Mangoush, he seemingly placed the blame on her as a supposed rogue player, therefore successfully distancing himself from the debacle and saving himself politically – for now, at least. 

Calling the Prime Minister “a compulsive liar”, the source told MEMO that Dbeibeh’s alleged efforts to advance relations with Israel were to serve the purpose of cancelling the Libyan elections due on 23 December and “to extend the life of this temporary government so they can steal more money … Without political legitimacy”.

Najla El-Mangoush is a scapegoat

This would not be the first reported meeting between Libyan and Israeli officials, in fact, and involves not only the internationally-recognised government in Tripoli but also spans across the country to the rival administration in the east.

In early 2022, Dbeibeh was reported by Saudi and Israeli media outlets to have met with the director of Israel’s Mossad intelligence service, David Barnea, in the Jordanian capital, Amman, in order to discuss the potential for normalisation between the two states. The Libyan Prime Minister’s office, of course, denied that it ever took place.

That followed on from a report in November 2021 by the Israeli outlet, Haaretz, which revealed that Saddam Haftar, son of the eastern Libyan warlord, Khalifa Haftar, had flown to Tel Aviv’s Ben-Gurion Airport for meetings with unspecified Israeli officials in relation to potential normalisation.

One might wonder about the reason why the reported secret talks between Libyan political figures and Israeli officials throughout the past decade have hardly borne any tangible results. The answer is likely the same as it is throughout the wider Arab world and region, in which states that have not yet struck normalisation agreements with Israel often notoriously have unofficial and secret security cooperation with the country.

Whether it be the purchase of spyware, the transfer of arms or expertise or coordination in the intelligence field, there has likely been a general compatibility in security between the Libyans – from both rival administrations – and the Israelis over the years. That usually precedes the eventual diplomatic agreement and compatibility which follows soon after, whenever the time is right.

While stable Arab states advance ties with Israel for the obvious purposes of improving technological, trade, security and intelligence capabilities, Libyan political figures particularly favour ties with Israel for political purposes.

It seems to be a good political strategy amongst presidential hopefuls in Libya – and other divided states or competing movements in the region – to meet with Israeli officials and lean toward normalisation in order to gain attention and approval from Tel Aviv and the US.

Ties with the occupation state are always a favourable move to get into Washington’s good books, even if those ties are secret and undisclosed, at first, plus they come with the added bonus of Israeli innovation which can always benefit a current or potential political figure. If, or when, those ties become openly established and acknowledged, it even offers the chance for greater security guarantees and diplomatic support from the US and other Western nations.

A secret meeting and fleeing Foreign Minister leave Dbeibeh in deeper trouble

It is that reality which likely encourages pragmatic figures such as Dbeibeh and Haftar to pursue relations with Tel Aviv. There is only one obstacle to those ambitions, however, and that is the view of the people they preside over.

Whether leadership figures and governments like it or not, the populations in the Arab world and wider region are still vehemently opposed to normalisation with Israel and negatively view the ongoing occupation of Palestinian Territories. 

As the 2022 Arab Opinion Index showed this year, the overwhelming majority of the population across the Arab world – 84 per cent – expressed their disapproval of their countries’ recognition of Israel. One of the highest disapproval rates came, coincidentally, from Libya, of which 96 per cent reportedly hold such a view.

The protests are no surprise, then, and the Libyan government and rival administration are fully aware of that reality.

There is little likelihood of any open ties or even more talks between the Libyans and Israelis any time soon, at least until there emerges further stability in the country, which is itself precarious amid the continued stalling of elections and the existence of armed groups on both sides of the national divide.

Dbeibeh, his administration and all political actors in Libya have been handed a severe reminder that to establish open ties with a state whose occupation is disagreeable to the Libyan people will not be so easy. Libyan and Israeli cooperation will, for now, have to remain in the shadows.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.