Libya’s government in Tripoli is desperately seeking greater legitimacy in the West, but there is desperation in Biden’s administration too.
Many analysts doubt that Libyan Prime Minister Abdul Hamid Dbeibah was truly unaware of plans for his foreign minister, Najla al-Mangoush, to meet her Israeli counterpart in Rome, and they instead believe she was thrown under the bus.
Last month, al-Mangoush met Eli Cohen for talks, and on August 27, Cohen announced the news, fuelling rage in Libya and creating a political crisis for the unelected, interim Tripoli-based government, which is struggling with a lack of public legitimacy.
Israel seemed to be trying to show that normalisation with Arab countries is gaining momentum despite no new states joining the Abraham Accords for almost three years. By announcing the meeting, it appeared to say that it is “normal” for high-ranking Arab officials to meet their Israeli counterparts – but the “Arab Street” did not agree.
Regardless of what Dbeibah knew and when he knew it, his government had to deal with the outcry.
In Libya, especially western Libya, there is no appetite for normalising relations with Israel. Andreas Krieg, associate professor at the Defence Studies Department at King’s College London, told Al Jazeera that Libyans have been “the most passionate about speaking out for Palestine and against Israel”.
During Muammar Gaddafi’s 42 years in power, “Israel was the enemy,” said Federica Saini Fasanotti, senior associate fellow at the Italian Institute for International Political Studies.
“That legacy is still very much present in post-Gaddafi Libya, and I would not underestimate it if I were Dbeibah.”
“It’s near impossible to get public support for normalisation with Israel,” Krieg said. “In Libya, there is this civil society, and this civil society may have been limited under Gaddafi, but … that civil society had one rallying point, and that was Palestine. That hasn’t really changed.”
US foreign policy implications
Officials in Washington were livid about the leak against the backdrop of quiet efforts by President Joe Biden’s administration to bring Libya into the Abraham Accords.
Acting United States Ambassador to Israel Stephanie Hallett met with Cohen to express dissatisfaction. One US official said the leak “killed” the possibility of Libya normalising ties with Israel while making it harder to expand the accords to new Arab Islamic countries.
Libya’s Tripoli-based government seemed to have been trying for more US backing and greater legitimacy on the international stage.
“If you don’t have public legitimacy, then you can get international legitimacy, and I think the Biden administration has signaled to the Dbeibah government that joining the Abraham Accords might be a way to get international legitimacy and support in Washington,” Krieg said.
“Libya is so desperate that it is ready to please everyone to get some sort of support. If being nice to Israel is going to sway the US, … why not?” asked Marco Carnelos, former Italian ambassador to Iraq.
“Libyan politicians do not have any authoritativeness before the international community,” Fasanotti said, “so it is crucial to gain public [backing from] countries that carry weight on the international stage.”
Just as Libya’s Tripoli-based government is desperately seeking greater legitimacy in the West, there is desperation in Biden’s administration too.
Mindful of how much Team Biden prioritises bringing more nations towards normalising relations with Israel, the White House’s fury was predictable. “I believe that at this stage, Biden’s administration would do everything to have [more] Arab countries joining the Abraham Accords,” Carnelos said.
Given Libya’s wide-ranging and dire problems, the fact that bringing it into an agreement with Israel is a US priority speaks to the centrality of the Abraham Accords to Washington’s policies.
“The problem here is the focus in Washington should be on public legitimacy and preparing elections [in Libya],” Krieg said. “Knowing that this is very difficult, they have empowered Dbeibah and other players in Libya by saying: ‘We give backing either way – whether there are elections or not – by you normalising with Israel.’ That’s the wrong signal.”
“The narratives that come out of this [are] that the US is only concerned about Israel, it doesn’t care about the rest of the Arab world, and it definitely doesn’t care about Arab public opinion, which is staunchly opposed to normalisation across the board. It also shows that [Biden’s] administration … are out of touch with realities on the ground in the Middle East.”
Carnelos said Washington’s timing is “completely wrong”, considering that “Israel is ruled by the worst government ever in terms of empathy towards Muslims and Palestinian rights in particular”.
“I have no idea who is the genius in Washington who came forward with such an absurd proposal,” he said.
The UAE’s role
The United Arab Emirates was the main Arab state arming renegade General Khalifa Haftar during the 2014-2020 Libyan civil war. He is affiliated with a rival government based in eastern Libya, but Abu Dhabi has recently engaged the Tripoli government with Emirati President Mohammed bin Zayed trying to persuade Dbeibah to normalise, according to Krieg.
The UAE being at the vanguard of regional efforts to get more Arab countries to normalise ties with Israel makes the Gulf state extremely important to US foreign policy interests.
For example, in 2020, shortly before Sudan announced its normalisation with Israel, a meeting was held in Abu Dhabi with Sudan, the UAE and the US. Sudan asked for a broad economic support package, giving the UAE the opportunity to use its financial resources as an incentive for Sudan.
For Abu Dhabi, the expansion of the Abraham Accords is important because it can help solidify its standing in Washington.
Because it is using its leverage to expand the accords, the UAE has been granted a “degree of freedom of manoeuvre” in Washington, Krieg told Al Jazeera. “Because every single time someone raises the issue of how the UAE is helping sanctions evasion, financing the Wagner Group or having a Chinese intelligence base in the country – every single time these issues come up, there will be someone in Washington who says: ‘Yes, but they have the Abraham Accords,’” Krieg said.
“It’s a get-out-of-jail card.”