By Our Correspondent
NEW DELHI—A political outcry has erupted in Libya after the news of Libya’s woman Foreign Minister Najla al-Mangoush’s secret meeting with her Israeli counterpart in Rome, Italy, was recently released by the Israeli Foreign Ministry. Libyan Prime Minister Abdul Hamid Dbeibah has sacked al-Mangoush for treason and she has fled the country out of fear for her safety.
The Foreign Minister is reported to have flown to Turkey after two nights of street protests in the capital city of Tripoli and elsewhere in Libya. The North African country does not recognise Israel and has no diplomatic ties with Tel Aviv. Under a Libyan legislation of 1957, dealing with Israel is punishable by up to nine years in prison.
As the Libyan people came to know of al-Mangoush’s interaction with Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen, protests erupted on the streets of Tripoli and its suburbs in August-end in a clear sign of refusal of normalisation with the Jewish country. The protests spread to other cities where young people blocked roads, burned tyres and waved the Palestinian flags.
After the fall of long-time ruler Muammar Gaddafi in a NATO-backed action in 2011, the oil-rich country has been split between the Western-backed government in Tripoli and a rival administration in the country’s east. Gen. Khalifa Haftar of the Libyan National Army runs the rival government in the eastern coastal city of Tobruk. Each side has been backed by armed groups and foreign governments. Dbeibah is the internationally recognized Prime Minister of Libya who rules over the west of the country.
Dbeibah has promised that there will be no normalization of ties with Israel following the scandal over the purported meeting. He said his government completely rejects any normalization deal and reiterated Libya’s complete commitment to the Palestinian people and their just cause. The Prime Minister said he was proud of the response of the Libyan people and affirmed that it clearly showed that the Palestinian issue runs in their veins.
The Israeli statement said the country’s Foreign Minister and his Libyan counterpart al-Mangoush spoke at a meeting in Rome hosted by the Italian Foreign Minister, Antonio Tajani, on August 22 and described it as the first such diplomatic initiative between the two countries. Eli Cohen said he spoke with al-Mangoush about the importance of preserving the heritage of Libyan Jews, which included renovating synagogues and Jewish cemeteries in the country.
However, the Libyan Foreign Ministry was quick to issue a denial. The Ministry stated that what happened in Rome was a “chance and unofficial encounter”, during a meeting with the Italian Foreign Minister, which did not involve any discussion, agreement or consultation. This looked like an unconvincing cover-up, as Dbeibah, dependent on Turkey for his grip on power, cannot afford a political setback at this juncture. His authority has been challenged by violent clashes in Tripoli between rival militias.
Normalization of relations between Libya and Israel is unlikely because of Benjamin Netanyahu’s hardline government indulging in violence in the occupied West Bank and carrying out expansion of Jewish settlements in the Palestinian territories. The issue is also contentious because there are two parallel administrations in Libya and only one of them, headed by Dbeibah, has been recognized by the United Nations.
Israel has normalized relations with some Arab countries in the recent years as part of the United States-backed deals known as the Abraham Accords. Since 2020, it has signed agreements normalizing relations with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco. The agreements have been met with outrage by the Palestinians, who have accused the Arab signatories of betrayal.
The U.S. is said to be angry about the disclosure of the meeting and has protested to Israel, saying the release of Foreign Ministry’s statement had put efforts to facilitate the normalization of relations between Israel and more Arab countries harder. U.S. President Joe Biden has accorded high priority to the Abraham Accords, as his latest target is the establishment of diplomatic ties between Israel and Saudi Arabia. The latter has rejected these overtures until an independent Palestinian state can be established.
After dismissing al-Mangoush, Dbeibah has replaced her with Fathallah al-Zani, the current Youth Minister, as the interim Foreign Minister. Earlier, there were demonstrations in front of the Foreign Ministry building in Tripoli calling for al-Mangoush’s dismissal and some protesters also demanded Dbeibah’s resignation.
Both the legislative bodies of Libya – the Tripoli-based High Council of State and the Tobruk-based House of Representatives – have condemned the meeting and called for an emergency session to discuss it, saying it was a crime committed against the Libyan people. Libya’s Presidential Council, which has executive powers, has also asked the government for clarifications.
Libya was an Italian colony from 1911 to 1943. Libya’s Jewish community was one of the most ancient in the world. It was persecuted by Nazi occupiers during the Second World Ward and a large number of Jews fled to Israel in the wake of anti-Semitic riots and policies in the decades which followed. There are no Jews left in Libya now and the community’s synagogues and cemeteries are lying in a dilapidated condition.
Libya’s General Prosecutor Al-Sediq al-Sour has said that he will establish a fact-finding mission to investigate the meeting and probe the violations of the country’s law for boycotting Israel. The extent of damage to Libya’s interests because of the Mangoush-Cohen meeting will also be investigated by the chief prosecutor.
On the other hand, Netanyahu is apparently making an attempt to distance himself from the controversy and has issued a directive requiring all secret diplomatic gatherings to be approved by his office. He has also directed that the publicizing of any covert diplomatic meetings should first be given a green light by the Prime Minister’s Office. The Mossad – the national intelligence agency of Israel – also believes that Eli Cohen has dealt an immense damage to the ties formed in recent years by publicizing the meeting.
The furore over the purported meeting has undermined the authority of Dbeibah, but it is also linked with the crisis in Libya against the backdrop of recent unrest, ranging from drone strikes, internecine fighting, kidnappings and the arbitrary arrests of prominent individuals.
Political observers in the Middle East feel that the involvement of Italy and the U.S. in Libya’s external affairs is going to lead to a diplomatic failure, as the country cannot be pushed towards normalizing relations with Israel when it has no elections and no unified system of law.