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For the moment, the Israel-Libya diplomatic channel is dead

Jalel Harchaoui of the Royal United Services Institute said, “Now the issue of normalization will be radioactive at least for the next few years.”

Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen at the ministry in Jerusalem, June 12, 2023. Photo by Yossi Aloni/Flash90.
Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen at the ministry in Jerusalem, June 12, 2023. Photo by Yossi Aloni/Flash90.

It was certainly historic: An Israeli foreign minister and his Libyan counterpart met for two hours in Italy and discussed a comprehensive series of issues: Diplomatic ties, cooperation in agriculture and technology, and even the possibility that Libya might join the Negev Forum alongside Israel, the United States, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco and Egypt.

There was another issue raised at the meeting as well: timing. When would the meeting go public and thus mark a new beginning in Israel-Libya relations?

Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen wanted the meeting to be publicized straight away, but the Libyans asked for more time. Cohen got his wish on Sunday when an official press release was issued by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

“It is a historic meeting, a first step,” Cohen said in the statement. “There is huge potential in ties between Israel and Libya.”

The statement proved counterproductive, to say the least. The Libyans rejected it and Foreign Minister Najla Mangoush was fired, bringing an end, for the moment, to the diplomatic channel with Israel.

Jeremy Issacharoff, a former vice director general at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, told JNS, “Over the years, when we at the Foreign Ministry held secret meetings, the approach was not to publish unless it was agreed upon. And it still has to be said: The approach was not to publish initial contact, even if there might have been an agreement.”

For decades, Libyan dictator Moammar Gaddafi saw to it that Libya and Israel were sworn enemies. Occasionally, however, there were reports that Libya was looking to establish some kind of diplomatic channel with Israel. Mysterious, government-tied flights from Libya would sometimes land in the Jewish state.

In January, Libyan Prime Minister Abdul Hamid Dbeibeh met with CIA Director William Burns, who suggested the normalization of ties with Israel, according to a report by The Associated Press. The prime minister did not rule out joining the Abraham Accords but said he was concerned about public backlash.

In recent months, several conversations and meetings were held between Israeli and Libyan officials, of which the meeting last week between Cohen and Mangoush was a part. In this case, however, disaster struck. Following Cohen’s statement, Dbeibah declared that he had no advance knowledge of the meeting and fired Mangoush. She fled to Turkey and later the U.K.

This faux pas seriously damaged U.S. and Israeli interests and operations in Libya. However, it also raises several important questions:

Did Libya agree to make the meeting public?

Israeli officials claim that there was an agreement between the two sides, before and during the meeting, that it would eventually be made public. The only question was when. People with knowledge of the talks told me that Libya wanted to delay the publication much further than the Israeli Foreign Ministry.

Why did the Israeli Foreign Ministry issue the statement in the first place?

Israeli officials claim that they had no option but to publish the statement. “A journalist had info on the meeting and was about to publish it, so we had no choice,” Israeli officials told JNS.

In the hours before the statement was made public, Foreign Ministry officials contacted Libyan officials, including the foreign minister herself, and told them: “It’s going to be published.”

The Foreign Ministry stated that the leak wasn’t from the ministry itself or from Cohen’s office, but many doubt this is true. Israeli politicians from both the government and the opposition criticized Cohen for “damaging an important diplomatic attempt for personal PR.” They added: “He has only a few more months left in office, and he wanted to present, at all costs, an achievement.” Cohen believes these accusations are unfair and denies any responsibility for the leak.

For his part, Jonathan Schanzer, senior vice president of research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, called leaks “one of the costs of doing business with Israel,” claiming that the fallout is mere “political theater.”

The main point to focus on, he said, is that “the number of Arab states that meet privately with Israelis and then condemn Israel publicly continues to grow.”

Did Libya’s prime minister approve the meeting?

Israeli officials told JNS that although Prime Minister Dbeibah denied any role in the meeting between the two foreign ministers, “the meeting was coordinated with the most senior people in Libya.” AP quoted two senior Libyan government officials who said that Dbeibah knew about the talks and greenlighted them last month when he was on a visit to Rome.

The officials added that Foreign Minister Mangoush briefed the prime minister directly after her return to Tripoli. Moreover, officials involved in Libya’s relations with Turkey claimed that Mangoush did not “flee” to Turkey, but was sent there by the prime minister “to cool things down.”

“Ankara doesn’t really like her, but they do like PM Dbeibah. If she had fled Libya, then Turkey would have ordered her to go back. If she entered the country, it means that the PM gave the OK,” claimed one official. “It has to be said, one of the reasons I think she is being criticized so harshly is because she is a woman in the Libyan government.”

“It would appear that Dbeibah sent his foreign minister to explore rapprochement with Israel and, when the public price proved too high, threw her under the bus. Such a high-level meeting, hosted by Italy, is unlikely to have been an act of rogue statecraft,” claimed Mark Dubowitz, the Foundation for Defense of Democracies’ CEO.

Jalel Harchaoui, a Libya specialist and associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute, added, “The problem was that the Libyans learned the things from Israeli media and not from the leaders themselves, and the public says: Why did they hide it from us?”

What’s next?

Yesterday, Stephanie Hallett, the U.S. chargé d’affaires in Israel, met with Foreign Minister Cohen and criticized Israel’s conduct. Israeli journalist Barak Ravid reported in Axios that other U.S. officials told Cohen and Foreign Ministry officials that publicizing the meeting damaged U.S. attempts to normalize relations between Israel and other Arab countries, had a destabilizing effect on Libya and harmed U.S. interests in Libya.

“Presumably, there were third parties here who helped organize the meeting, and this causes also damage towards them,” Jeremy Issacharoff told JNS. “The question is: What was the motive for this meeting? The Libyans probably had a greater interest in holding the meeting, and therefore the Libyans’ interest still exists. Their reaction was very extreme, but if they really want the relations, I believe that someday they will overcome this crisis.”

Officials in the Mossad also claimed that the story damaged the discreet diplomatic channels between Israel and Libya.

On one thing, everyone agrees: At the moment, the diplomatic channel between Israel and Libya is dead, though Israeli Foreign Ministry officials claimed that “things will cool down, the government was panicking because of the protests and the criticism.”

But some fear the damage will be lasting. Jalel Harchaoui told me, “It will be very difficult to repair the damage done. Now the issue of normalization will be radioactive at least for the next few years.”

Amichai Stein is the diplomatic correspondent for Kan 11, IPBC.

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