Libya’s internationally recognized government sacked its Foreign Minister Najla Mangoush on Monday amid a firestorm over her meeting last week with Israeli counterpart Eli Cohen.
Her firing comes as Libya’s Foreign Ministry reportedly said that Prime Minister Abdul Hamid al-Dbeibeh authorized the diplomatic exchange in Rome.
The Foreign Ministry said that the Cohen-Mangoush meeting came after al-Dbeibeh, head of the national unity government in Tripoli, sat with his Italian counterpart Giorgia Meloni in Rome last month, where they agreed to arrange the meeting with the Israelis, according to the reports.
Two senior Libyan government officials confirmed this version of events to The Associated Press, saying that al-Dbeibeh knew about the Cohen meeting ahead of time. One of the officials said the prime minister green-lit the meeting with Cohen during the Rome visit last month and that it was coordinated with Mangoush.
Al-Dbeibeh announced the formation of a committee to probe his government’s top diplomat after the meeting became public, while his Tripoli-based Government of National Unity issued a statement calling the tête-à-tête in Rome “accidental, unofficial and not planned in advance.”
The Foreign Ministry in Tripoli said that al-Dbeibeh requested that Mangoush issue a statement that the meeting was “coincidental” so as not to implicate him.
Israeli diplomatic officials on Monday said that the two-hour meeting was coordinated with senior officials in Tripoli, conflicting with Libya’s version of how the encounter unfolded. An Israeli official told Reuters that the meeting was approved “at the highest levels in Libya.”
It was also put forward by the Libyan Foreign Ministry’s Office that there was an agreement for the Italian government to provide Tripoli with benefits in return for the meeting with the Israelis.
The statement indicated that the Libyan Prime Minister’s Office decided to suspend Mangoush on Sunday night after being exposed, stressing that she had documentation to prove that al-Dbeibeh authorized the meeting and that the foreign ministry would not allow her to be scapegoated.
Mangoush was forced to flee to Turkey amid a public outcry as hundreds of people took to the streets in the capital Tripoli and several other Libyan cities to protest the diplomatic exchange.
Salmin Asaad, an aide to Mangoush, confirmed to The New York Times that she departed for Turkey due to “safety concerns,” and a Libyan Foreign Ministry official also confirmed the departure to AP. However, Libya’s Internal Security Agency denied her departure, saying that she was not authorized to leave the nation’s territory.
Israel’s Foreign Ministry revealed the meeting on Sunday, with a diplomat telling The Times of Israel on Monday that a decision was made to publicize the meeting several days earlier than intended because it had already leaked to the media.
The Foreign Ministry issued a statement on Monday saying that it was not the source that leaked the meeting to the press.
“The foreign minister and Foreign Ministry are committed to expanding Israel’s foreign relations … the leak about the meeting with Libya’s foreign minister did not come from the Foreign Ministry or the foreign minister’s office.”
‘Huge potential for the State of Israel’
Meanwhile, Israel’s Walla news site claimed on Monday afternoon that U.S. President Joe Biden was aware of the meeting and urged Tripoli to attend, but thought that the rendezvous would remain confidential.
The report cited an unnamed official in Washington as saying that the leak “killed” the normalization process with Libya, in addition to deterring other countries in the region from normalizing ties with the Jewish state.
During the first-ever meeting between representatives of the two countries, Cohen offered humanitarian help to the conflict-wrecked North African nation and discussed efforts to preserve the heritage of Libyan Jewry.
“The historic meeting with the Libyan foreign minister, Najla Mangoush, is the first step in the relationship between Israel and Libya,” Cohen said in a statement, explaining that “given Libya’s size and strategic location, relations are of great importance and have huge potential for the State of Israel.”
Israeli officials established contact with Libya’s unity government several months ago.
A Libyan government official told AP that the possibility of Libya joining the Abraham Accords was first discussed in January in a meeting in Tripoli between al-Dbeibeh and CIA Director William Burns.
The source told the news agency that the Libyan premier initially gave approval to Burns’s normalization proposal but withdrew from his position due to fears of a public backlash in the country.
Torn by a bloody civil war since a NATO-supported rebellion removed dictator Muammar Gaddafi from power in 2011, Libya has been divided between rival governments for more than a decade.
Mangoush had represented the U.N.-backed unity government in Tripoli, which enjoys support from large swaths of the international community.