The diplomatic firestorm unfolding in Libya comes as the United States is pushing the North African country to hold long-awaited nationwide elections.
At first glance, war-ravaged and politically fractured Libya is an unlikely candidate for normalizing relations with Israel’s far-right government. For starters, it’s unclear whether the unelected, embattled Tripoli-based government even has the authority to enter into such an agreement with Israel.
The public disclosure of Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen’s meeting in Rome last week with Najla el-Mangoush quickly set off protests across Libya, where public support for Israel normalization polls in the single digits and establishing relations with the Jewish state remains a criminal act under a 1957 law.
The uproar threatens the relative calm Libya is now enjoying 12 years after a NATO-backed uprising toppled longtime dictator Moammar Gadhafi. Two rival governments in the east and west, each supported by their own set of foreign backers and armed militias, are now jostling for control of the oil-rich country of 7 million people. Repeated UN-led attempts to hold elections have failed.
On Monday, Prime Minister Abdul Hamid Dbeibah, the appointed head of the UN-supported Government of National Unity in the Libyan capital, said he suspended Mangoush after Cohen spilled the beans on their meeting. The Libyan Foreign Ministry claimed the meeting was a chance encounter, and Mangoush has since fled to Turkey out of concern for her safety.
“The political elites in Libya did scapegoat her, insofar as they were all aware that these meetings were happening,” said Alissa Pavia, the associate director of the Atlantic Council’s North Africa program. “These meetings have been happening for the past six to eight months.”
“All of a sudden now Dbeibah’s going public saying he knew nothing about this. … These are your typical two-faced Libyan elites, trying to play both cards,” Pavia said.
Experts say many of the same Libyan politicians who threw Mangoush under the bus for the Cohen meeting have themselves had contact with Israelis. As Ben Caspit reports, “Mossad and other security entities have maintained discreet, sensitive contacts with various Libyan figures for many years.”
In November 2021, Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported that Saddam Hifter, the son of eastern strongman Khalifa Hifter, landed in a private jet at Israel’s Ben Gurion airport to discuss establishing diplomatic ties in exchange for Israeli military assistance.
In January 2022, Libyan and Saudi media outlets reported that Dbeibah met with Mossad chief David Barnea in Jordan to discuss normalization and security cooperation. Dbeibah’s office denied the reports.
A number of other Libyan officials, including the former Hifter-aligned eastern Foreign Minister Abdul Hadi Al-Hweij, have been quoted as expressing some level of support for eventual relations with Israel.
Speaking on condition of anonymity, a Libyan official told Al-Monitor the United States has long encouraged communication channels between the two countries on security and intelligence matters.
The Associated Press reports that CIA Director Bill Burns discussed normalizing ties with Israel during a meeting with Dbeibah in January. The Libyan official also told Al-Monitor that Burns raised the issue with Dbeibah while in Tripoli.
The Biden administration is eager to expand on its predecessor’s so-called Abraham Accords, which in 2020 established diplomatic relations between Israel and several Arab states, including the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco.
But bringing Libya into the Trump-era accords is not on the administration’s list of priorities for the war-torn country, where the more pressing US interests include expelling Russia’s Wagner mercenary group and containing the threat of Islamist militant groups.
Axios reports that US officials were nonetheless angered by Cohen’s public disclosure of the Mangoush meeting, concerned it could jeopardize normalization with other Arab countries who may fear they can no longer trust Israel to conduct diplomacy discreetly.
The uproar comes as the United Nations is pushing for elections that would unify Libya under a single executive authority. Planned elections in December 2021 were called off at the last minute amid disputes over who was eligible to run. Candidates included Dbeibah, Hifter and Seif al-Islam Gaddafi, the son of the ousted dictator who is wanted on war crimes charges.
Many analysts say Dbeibah, who refused to step down after the elections were postponed, likely pursued Israel ties via Mangoush as a way of gaining legitimacy in the eyes of the international community. But Ben Fishman, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and a former National Security Council director for North Africa, said Dbeibah may have overestimated the value of such a meeting.
The Israel debacle is “just another example of how this government, in the eyes of many, has overreached because it was initially just a technocratic or interim government to get to the point of elections,” Fishman added.
This February, the UN’s special envoy for Libya, Abdoulaye Bathily, said he would be spearheading a new effort to hold long-awaited parliamentary and presidential elections by the end of 2023. But many Libyans were skeptical that the country’s entrenched political class would meaningfully cooperate on an election proposal that could see them removed from power.
Libyan politicians, including Hifter, who backs the eastern-based government, and its parliament speaker Aguila Saleh, have since called for the creation of a new interim government to oversee the vote. The former chair of the rival High State Council, Khaled Mishri, also publicly endorsed the idea. But critics are concerned the formation of yet another interim government in Libya would remove the incentive for holding elections.
“Interim has become a word for de facto,” said Anas El Gomati, the founder of the Tripoli-based Sadeq Institute think tank.
“As they claim that they want to stand for elections, they clamor at the opportunity to create a joint interim government appointment that on the surface looks like Libya has solved the problems,” El Gomati said.
US Ambassador to the UN Linda Thomas-Greenfield told the UN Security Council this month that Washington is “open to supporting the formation of a technocratic caretaker government” before elections are held.
A senior State Department official who spoke on the condition of anonymity told Al-Monitor the United States is not proposing “another kind of open-ended transitional structure,” but rather, a body that would “enable a political technocratic management of the elections process.”
The senior official declined to speculate on who would constitute such a caretaker government, but said it would not be “a recipe for stability in Libya to have a candidate in the election also exercising executive power and administering that elections process.”
Six months after Bathily unveiled his year-end election plan, a nationwide vote looks as uncertain as ever. Many of the key issues that sunk the 2021 elections remain unresolved, including the eligibility criteria for candidates. Asked about prospects for elections in 2023, the senior official said “courageous decisions by key political factions” would be required to move forward.
Elizabeth Hagedorn is Al-Monitor’s State Department correspondent. She previously reported on the region as a freelance journalist in Turkey and Iraq for publications including Middle East Eye, The National and The Guardian.