Protest flares up in Libya over the meeting between the Foreign Minister and her Israeli counterpart. Tripoli denies and fires the head of diplomacy.


Libyan Prime Minister Abdul Hamid Dbeibah has suspended Foreign Minister Najla El Mangoush from her position after she “fortuitously” met with Eli Cohen, her Israeli counterpart, during a visit to Italy last week. 

The news of the meeting, although unofficial and unscheduled – as reported by the Libyan minister – triggered violent protests in several cities of the North African country . 

In Tripoli, a crowd of protestersattacked the Foreign Ministry and attempted to set fire to the prime minister’s residence, while in other cities government offices were surrounded and barricades erected in the streets. 

Protests and strikes have interrupted traffic circulation and new disruptions are expected in the next few hours. In an attempt to quell the riots, Dbeibah announced the opening of an investigation and guaranteed that his Government of National Unity has no intention of starting a process of normalization of relations with Israel . 

Libya, like several Arab states, does not recognize or maintain any diplomatic relations with Israel. According to a law from 1957, dealing with the Jewish state is a crime carrying up to nine years in prison. 

Furthermore, historically, Tripoli has always been at the forefront in supporting the Palestinian cause and during the years of Muammar Gaddafi, citizens of the Jewish faith were victims of expropriations, synagogues were set on fire and many were forced to emigrate. 

The incident occurs at a diplomatically delicate moment , in which the Tel Aviv government is pursuing a policy of agreements and progressive normalization with several Arab and Muslim-majority countries.

A scheduled meeting?

The news of the meeting, which took place last week in Rome , was released by Cohen himself who had defined it as “a first, historic step” towards the resumption of diplomatic relations. 

Anonymous sources also told the Reuters news agency that the meeting had been agreed in advance and “at the highest levels” in Libya, and lasted more than two hours. 

During their conversation, the two ministers reportedly spoke about Israeli funding for some humanitarian projects, agriculture, water management and the importance of preserving Jewish heritage in Libya, including synagogues and cemeteries. 

Details that fueled the scandal despite the denials of the Tripoli Foreign Ministry which defined the face-to-face meeting as ” a casual and unplanned meeting during a meeting at the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs”. 

A disavowal that was not enough to calm the indignation of a strongly anti-Israel public opinion

On Sunday evening, Libya’s Presidential Council – a body that carries out the functions of head of state and is responsible for the army – asked the government for “clarification” on what happened, saying that the meeting between the two ministers “does not reflect the political foreign country of the Libyan State, does not represent national constants and is considered a violation of Libyan laws which criminalize normalization with the Zionist entity“. 

On Monday, the Israeli Foreign Ministry partially corrected the issue , specifying that it was not behind the “news leak” about the meeting “contrary to what was published” in the international media.

In the wake of Abraham?

As of 2020, in the wake of the so-called ‘Abraham Accords’ favored by the American government, Israel has normalized relations with several Arab countries, including the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco and Sudan and is engaged in talks that could lead to the next months to a historic agreement with Saudi Arabia . 

Nonetheless, the agreements are frowned upon by the majority of Arab public opinions , who see the government of which Cohen is part even more negatively than the previous ones, as it is based on a majority that includes parties of the extreme religious right, bearers of a radical and violent line towards the Palestinians. 

The executive, led by Benjamin Netanyahu, is also targeted by criticism for having encouraged the construction of settlements and colonies in the West Bank , triggering a new cycle of violence. 

For this reason, Cohen’s words, which allegedly put the Libyan government in difficulty, also raised criticism from the Israeli opposition. 

The countries of the world this morning look at the irresponsible leak of news regarding the meeting of the Israeli and Libyan foreign ministers and ask themselves: is it possible to manage foreign relations with this country? Is it possible to have trust in this country?”, declared Yair Lapid, former Israeli prime minister who is now in opposition, criticizing Cohen for having made the details of the meeting public.

USA pushing for normalization?

On the other hand, it was now clear that something in the Libyan version of events did not add up. A meeting at the level of foreign ministers rarely takes place without a precise indication from the government leaders and the fact that it took place in Rome suggests that the meeting had to remain secret. 

While protests are mounting around the affair and there are rumors – denied by the Libyan security services – that Minister El Mangoush has fled to Turkey to escape possible reprisals, the Farnesina neither confirms nor denies the meeting took place. 

Meanwhile, Libyan government officials tell the Washington Post that the normalization of relations between Libya and Israel would be discussed for the first timein a meeting between Dbeibah and CIA Director William Burns , who visited the Libyan capital in January. 

According to sources, Burns proposed that the Libyan government join the group of four Arab countries that normalized relations with Israel under the US-brokered Abraham Accords in 2020.

The Libyan prime minister reportedly gave an initial agreement , as his government would gain considerable international prestige, but he was concerned about public reaction in a country known for its support of the Palestinian cause.

The comment

By Federica Saini Fasanotti, ISPI Senior Associate Research Fellow: “What has happened in the last few hours leaves no room for doubt regarding the chaos that reigns in Tripoli. In fact, it is very peculiar that a Foreign Minister can go to a foreign country for a very delicate meeting without the head of government knowing about it. Especially when the counterpart in question is Israel, with which Libya historically had extremely complex relations during the Gaddafi regime. It seems rather that things have gotten out of hand and that, taken by surprise, Dbeibah has decided to sacrifice the weakest pawn, Najla El Mangoush, sending her to Turkey to calm the square, which has long been under the control of militias organized in real own criminal cartels.”  


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