Cohen blames political opponents for firestorm over meet he publicized with Libya FM

Amid political fallout in Tripoli and Jerusalem, and reported US anger at revelation, top Israeli diplomat laments ‘rush to react without knowing the details’

A composite image of Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen (left), and Libyan Foreign Minister Najla Mangoush (right). (Iakovos Hatzistavrou/AFP; Adem Altan/AFP)
A composite image of Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen (left), and Libyan Foreign Minister Najla Mangoush (right). (Iakovos Hatzistavrou/AFP; Adem Altan/AFP)

Foreign Minister Eli Cohen blamed “political opponents” for the firestorm on Monday surrounding his revelation the previous day that he recently held an unprecedented meeting with his Libyan counterpart Najla Mangoush. His disclosure of the meeting sparked outrage in Libya, a blizzard of criticism at home, and a rebuke from Washington.

Mangoush was fired on Monday — and has since fled Libya — over the meeting with Cohen, amid the ballooning political fallout in both Jerusalem and Tripoli over the decision by Israel’s top diplomat to divulge in a celebratory press statement on Sunday that the two ministers held a “historic” sit-down in Rome last week.

In a post to X (formerly Twitter) in Hebrew late Monday, Cohen said the Foreign Ministry “works regularly through overt and covert channels, and in a variety of secret ways to strengthen Israel’s connections in the world,” and blasted “political opponents who have not advanced any significant achievement” in their “rush to react without knowing the details.”

He touted the ministry’s “many achievements over the past year, including the opening of Oman’s skies to [commercial] flights, a trade agreement with the United Arab Emirates [in effect since late March] effect, [the opening of] two new embassies of Muslim countries, three embassies that will move to Jerusalem, and more,” which he said would not have “matured without discreet preparatory actions” and “covert moves through many channels.”

Cohen had been widely castigated Monday for formally publicizing his meeting with Mangoush, with opposition figures denouncing him for an “amateurish, irresponsible” lack of judgment, and senior government sources accusing him of inflicting serious harm on Israeli diplomacy.

Washington, too, was said to be furious. US President Joe Biden was aware of the meeting between Cohen and Mangoush, the Walla news site reported, and encouraged Tripoli to attend, but was under the impression that the meeting was secret and would remain so.

Libyan Foreign Minister Najla Mangoush speaks during a press conference with her Turkish counterpart at Turkey’s foreign ministry in Ankara, February 13, 2023. (Adem Altan/AFP)

Israel’s Channel 12 and Channel 13 reported that the acting US Ambassador to Israel, Stephanie Hallett, told Cohen on Monday evening that his publicizing of the unprecedented meeting was worrying. Channel 13 said she told him it was a misstep that needed to be corrected and that Cohen, in response, said Israel would not further discuss the meeting in public.

A US official quoted by Hebrew media said Cohen’s revelation “killed” the conversation channel with Libya about possibly normalizing ties with Israel.

American officials were also unconvinced by the Foreign Ministry’s explanation that it released its statement about the meeting to preempt the imminent publication in Hebrew media of a leaked report on the talks, saying that Israel could have still chosen not to comment on the leak and minimized the damage.

Walla and Channel 12 news both cited officials in Cohen’s office claiming Washington wasn’t angry with Israel and had merely asked Jerusalem to “calm” the situation. Both outlets cited US officials contradicting that claim and saying the White House was furious with Israel.

The US embassy in Israel declined to comment on the reports. The Foreign Ministry also did not offer a response.

An unnamed source in the Mossad spy agency was quoted by Channel 12 as saying Cohen’s conduct “has dealt immense damage to the ties formed in recent years,” adding: “He burned the bridge. It’s irreparable.”

In its first official reaction to the backlash earlier Monday, the Foreign Ministry issued a statement that appeared to try to shift responsibility for Cohen’s announcement by claiming he only issued it after the “leak” and imminent publication in Hebrew media of details of the encounter — a leak, the ministry said, for which neither his office nor the ministry was responsible.

“The Foreign Minister and Foreign Ministry are committed to expanding Israel’s foreign relations… The leak about the meeting with Libya’s foreign minister did not come from the Foreign Ministry or the Foreign Minister’s office,” said a statement from the ministry.

Libyans reacted with outrage to Cohen’s announcement of the meeting and scattered protests broke out in Tripoli and other western Libyan towns. Libyan Prime Minister Abdul Hamid al-Dbeibeh initially suspended Mangoush from her role, and said an investigation panel would be formed to look into the meeting, before firing her on Monday.

Libya’s foreign ministry denied any formal talks were held with Cohen. “What happened in Rome was an unofficial and unprepared casual meeting, during a meeting with the Italian foreign minister, and it did not include any discussions, agreements or consultations,” the Libyan Foreign Ministry said in a communique.

The ministry declared the “complete and absolute rejection of normalization with the Zionist entity” and affirmed its “full commitment to the national constants on the issues of the Arab and Islamic nations, foremost of which is the Palestinian cause,” while adhering to the position of Jerusalem being “the eternal capital of Palestine.”

A Libyan foreign ministry official later confirmed Mangoush had fled to Turkey out of concern for her safety.

File: Libyan Prime Minister Abdul Hamid al-Dbeibeh in Rome, Monday, May 31, 2021 (AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia, Pool, File)

After firing Mangoush, Dbeibeh visited the Palestinian embassy in Tripoli, and vowed there would be no normalization with Israel, the Libya Observer news site reported. During his visit, Dbeibeh again reiterated that he had no knowledge of Mangoush’s meeting with Cohen, and confirmed he had fired her.

Dbeibeh said he was “reaffirming Libya’s refusal to normalize relations with the Zionist entity,” the report said.

Dbeibeh’s decision to dismiss Mangoush suggested that he was not aware of the meeting. However, two senior Libyan government officials told The Associated Press the prime minister knew about the talks between his foreign minister and the Israeli chief diplomat.

One of the officials said Dbeibeh gave the green light for the meeting last month when he was on a visit to Rome. The prime minister’s office arranged the encounter in coordination with Mangoush, he said.

The second official said the Mangoush-Cohen meeting lasted for about two hours and Mangoush briefed the prime minister directly after her return to Tripoli. The official said the meeting was tied to US-brokered efforts to have Libya join a series of Arab countries establishing diplomatic relations with Israel.

The official said normalization of relations between Libya and Israel was first discussed in a meeting between Dbeibeh and CIA Director William Burns, who visited the Libyan capital in January.

The Libyan premier gave initial approval for joining the US-brokered Abraham Accords, but he was concerned about public backlash in a country known for its support for the Palestinian cause, the official said. Both officials spoke on condition of anonymity for their safety.

Italian Premier Giorgia Meloni, center, poses with the President of the Libyan Presidential Council, Mohamed al-Menfi, left, and Libyan Prime Minister Abdul Hamid al-Dbeibeh, as they arrive to attend an International conference on migration in Rome, July 23, 2023. (AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia)

Libya analysts suggested late Monday that Mangoush may have become the “fall person” for decisions made by Libya’s rival leaders

Libya expert Anas El Gomati of the Sadeq Institute said that Dbeibeh, his rival military strongman Khalifa Haftar and the eastern-based parliament that backs him, all knew about the meeting.

They “have used Libya’s first female foreign minister as the fall person for decisions they all partook in,” Gomati said. “It’s not about politics. It’s blatant scapegoating,” he told AFP.

Fellow analyst Jalel Harchaoui agreed Dbeibeh’s survival is at stake and the meeting was spurred by “pressure” on Libya from both the United Nations and the United States to push ahead with much-delayed presidential and legislative elections

According to Harchaoui, Dbeibeh “tried to play at diplomacy but failed because he did not evaluate correctly” the response of Libyans opposed to ties with Israel.

Libya plunged into chaos after a NATO-backed uprising toppled and killed longtime dictator Muammar Gaddafi in 2011. The country split in the chaos that followed, with rival administrations in the east and west backed by rogue militias and foreign governments.

Mangoush represents the UN-recognized government based in Tripoli.

While Israel and Libya have never had ties, there have long been reported contacts between Gaddafi’s son Saif al-Islam and Israeli officials. The mercurial Gaddafi himself also apparently reached out to Israel on a number of occasions, including to push his proposal for a united Israeli-Palestinian country, to be called Isratine.

In 2021, the son of Libyan warlord Haftar reportedly visited Israel for a secret meeting with Israeli officials in which he offered to establish diplomatic relations between the two countries in return for Israeli support.

It is illegal to normalize ties with Israel under a 1957 law in Libya.

Agencies contributed to this report.

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