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Nothing is inevitable: The lessons of Israel’s Libya fiasco

Publicizing a meeting with Libya’s foreign minister was a blunder. But the incident speaks to both the momentum for normalization and hatred towards the Jewish state.

During an Arab League summit in Libya, Palestinian Islamic Jihad militants in the Gaza Strip take part in a rally calling for Arab leaders to cancel an initiative for indirect peace talks with Israel, March 27, 2010. Photo by Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash 90.
During an Arab League summit in Libya, Palestinian Islamic Jihad militants in the Gaza Strip take part in a rally calling for Arab leaders to cancel an initiative for indirect peace talks with Israel, March 27, 2010. Photo by Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash 90.
Jonathan S. Tobin
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him @jonathans_tobin.

There may be plenty of blame to go around for what happened this past week between Israel and Libya. Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen’s decision to announce the news of a meeting with Libyan Foreign Minister Najla Mangoush proved a blunder. But it would be a mistake to simply put this down to the bad judgment of a publicity-hungry politician, though Cohen’s insecurity about his authority is certainly the main factor that explains what went wrong.

Yet the meeting, which was reportedly brokered by the United States and Italy, and the reaction to it speaks volumes about two separate trends in Middle East diplomacy that must be taken into account if anything is to be learned from this episode. One involves a realization that Israeli contacts with even the most radical and troubled Muslim and Arab states are more extensive than most people realize. The other is that for all of the justified hoopla over the Abraham Accords, as well as the reality of the extensive ties with nations like Saudi Arabia that have not yet exchanged ambassadors, hatred for Israel throughout the region never runs far below the surface.

That both of these trends can be real represents the dichotomy between the attitudes of largely authoritarian governments and the populations of these nations. The former clearly recognize the considerable economic, security and diplomatic advantages of relations with Israel. The latter, however, still live in societies where antisemitism and the demonization of Israel are normative and deeply entrenched aspects of their popular cultures and political discourse.

That isn’t the case everywhere. In the United Arab Emirates, contacts between Israelis and Jews, and citizens of that nation, have become productive and warm. But that may be the exception that proves the rule. Elsewhere in the region, the situation remains different.

When the governments of these countries are sufficiently secure so as to be indifferent to popular opinion, normalization can proceed without problems, albeit with a degree of caution. Yet even in Egypt, which has had diplomatic relations with Israel since 1980, ties with Israel have coexisted with a situation in which the spread of antisemitism throughout the country’s media and entertainment was tolerated. To some extent, that remains the case today, even though the current government led by President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi is much more favorably disposed towards Jerusalem than its predecessor.

Still, nations that lack strong governments are poorly placed to be able to sell normalization to their people. Libya is clearly one such example. The oil-rich North African nation has been a mess since the beginning of the civil war that led to the fall of the regime of longtime dictator Moammar Ghaddafi in 2011. Since then, chaos and violence carried out by terror groups (such as the 2012 attack on U.S. diplomatic facilities in Benghazi that led to the death of four Americans) have prevailed. It is currently ruled by two separate regimes—one in the Western part of the country based in Tripoli and another in the Eastern portion. The Israelis were negotiating with the Tripoli government led by Prime Minister Abdul Hamid Dbeibeh, who was supportive of contacts with Israel and sent his foreign minister to meet Cohen.

Cohen’s folly

While the details of Israel’s dealings with Libya are still unclear, the prevailing narrative seems to be that the Libyans didn’t want any announcement of the meeting in Rome; the Israeli Foreign Ministry, however, was eager to announce it. The ministry says their hand was forced by the fact that a journalist had the story and was going to run it, regardless of what Jerusalem said. It’s more than likely that the news about the meeting was leaked by someone in the Israeli government, even though Cohen claims that his office is blameless and instead sought to shift attention to alleged mischief on the part of the National Security Council or the Mossad.

The Biden administration and Israeli opposition parties would like to blame this on Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. But the fact that the prime minister reportedly issued a directive this week to all government ministers to get his personal approval in advance of and for the release for publication of any secret diplomatic meetings says all anyone needs to know about who he thinks is to blame.

Netanyahu had wanted to name Ron Dermer, his longtime aide and former Israeli Ambassador to the United States, as foreign minister when he took office last December. However, internal pressure from Likud activists who felt they were being shortchanged in the handing out of ministries led to him being forced to name Cohen to the post as part of a rotation with veteran cabinet member Israel Katz.

Cohen clearly wanted to make a name for himself on the world stage before being relegated to the less glamorous post of energy minister in four months. This blunder is a setback to his hopes one day to replace Netanyahu as leader of the Likud (though the prime minister is not only not interested in grooming a successor, he doesn’t appear to even believe in the concept).

For now, Cohen has demonstrated that Netanyahu was right to want a seasoned diplomat in the post. That’s why the prime minister delegates all sensitive diplomatic missions, especially those concerning the United States, to Dermer, for whom the title of Minister of Strategic Affairs was concocted.

Cohen’s folly notwithstanding, the fact that even a government as shaky as that in Libya would consider moves towards normalization illustrates the power of the concept and its appeal to leaders who realize how much their nations have to gain. But the riots in the streets of Libyan cities in reaction to the meeting with Mangoush, who was subsequently fired and forced to flee the country, equally demonstrates just how strong visceral antipathy for the Jewish state remains among the citizens of such countries. Even if Cohen hadn’t screwed things up, it was wildly premature to speak of possible normalization between Libya and Israel.

The Abraham Accords are justly celebrated as a historic breakthrough. The same can be said for the increasingly open ties between Israel and Saudi Arabia—the kingdom that was for many years the ideological leader of the coalition pushing for the isolation and elimination of the Jewish state.

The Saudi de facto leader, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, grasps that it is in his country’s interests to ally itself with Israel since that is necessary for its mutual defense against the threat from Iran, as well as being good for the economies of the Gulf states. Arab and Muslim leaders have also belatedly realized that letting their interests being held hostage by intransigent Palestinians who will never make peace with Israel makes no sense. Though they pay lip service to the Palestinian cause, they are as uninterested in creating another failed Arab state that would be liable to being taken over by Islamists as most Israelis.

Don’t underestimate the power of antisemitism

This turn of events may be entirely the result of rational calculations, though it still seems miraculous when seen in the context of the long struggle for Israeli survival. It must be tempered by the knowledge that any advances towards normalization are part of a long-term process that may take decades before being completed.

Netanyahu deserves more credit than he is generally given for his success in forging better relations with not only Arab and Muslim countries but those in Asia and Eastern Europe that were once hostile to Israel. But the attempt to portray such progress as part of an inevitable arc of progress that cannot be stopped is more hype than reality. Establishing firm international ties may make sense, but there’s nothing inevitable about it.

This remains a time in which a rising tide of antisemitism has spread throughout the world, with the flames of hatred being fanned not just by Arab propagandists but international institutions like the United Nations and its Human Rights Council. It might be overstating the case to say that the trend to integrate Israel into the broader Middle East is a fragile vessel that can be easily shattered. It is, however, by no means assured so long as this hate is so widespread. It will also take more than blunders by Israeli politicians to halt a movement that is rooted in Arab self-interest. Yet it is equally true that those who don’t factor in the persistence of antisemitic hate among people who see Jewish sovereignty as an insult to Islam are bound to be disappointed.

Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him at: @jonathans_tobin.

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