Top opposition figures on Monday slammed Foreign Minister Eli Cohen for revealing news of his recent meeting with his Libyan counterpart, who was suspended after the announcement and reportedly fled the country.
Government officials also took Cohen to task, with senior sources accusing him of inflicting serious harm on Israeli diplomacy. Other sources pushed back on the intense criticism, insisting the move to make the meeting public had been coordinated with Tripoli.
Cohen announced Sunday that he met with Libya’s foreign minister Najla Mangoush in Italy last week, the first-ever official meeting of the two countries’ top diplomats. In a celebratory statement, Cohen hailed the meeting as “historic” and a “first step” in the establishment of diplomatic ties between Israel and Libya.
The announcement was not well received by Libya, which reportedly swiftly asked Israel’s Foreign Ministry to take down an Arabic-language statement on the meeting shared on its social media accounts.
While the ministry deleted the posts, it had already sent out Cohen’s statement to Israeli outlets that reported the meeting.
Hours later, Libyan Prime Minister Abdul Hamid al-Dbeibeh suspended Mangoush and announced the formation of a panel to investigate her over the meeting, while Libya’s foreign ministry denied there had been any formal meeting.
Cohen had said the two discussed numerous issues during their sit-down.
News of the meeting prompted scattered protests in Tripoli and other towns in western Libya. Protesters stormed the foreign ministry headquarters to condemn the meeting, while others attacked and burned a residence of the prime minister in Tripoli, according to local reports.
In the town of Zawiya protesters burned the Israeli flag, while others waved the Palestinian flag. There were also protests in the city of Misrata, a Dbeibah stronghold, according to footage circulated on social media and verified by The Associated Press.
Mangoush has since fled to Turkey, according to reports.
“Countries are looking at the irresponsible leak this morning of the Israeli and Libyan foreign ministers and asking themselves: Is this a country that it’s possible to manage foreign relations with? Is it a country that can be trusted?” Opposition Leader Yair Lapid said in a statement.
Lapid, who served as foreign minister and then prime minister in the previous government, said that keeping such meetings discreet had in the past helped build trust with countries that had no ties with Israel but later went on to establish diplomatic relations with the Jewish state.
“This is what happens when Eli Cohen, a man without any background in the field, is appointed foreign minister,” Lapid continued. “The incident with the Libyan foreign minister was amateurish, irresponsible and a grave failure of judgment.”
“This is a morning of national shame and putting a life in danger for a headline.”
National Unity party leader Benny Gantz similarly upbraided Cohen.
“When everything is done for public relations and headlines without any responsibility or forethought, this is what happens,” Gantz wrote on X, the platform once known as Twitter.
Senior government officials quoted by Hebrew media said Cohen caused serious damage to Israel’s foreign relations, and warned that Arab leaders would be deterred from forging tighter bonds.
“This testifies to the amateurism with which the Foreign Ministry is run,” a ministry source told the Ynet news site.
But another diplomatic source came to Cohen’s defense, telling The Times of Israel that the Libyans were fully on board with Israel revealing the details of the meeting.
“They agreed to the publication,” said the diplomat. “It was known. The only surprise was the timing.”
According to the source, details of the meeting had begun to leak and journalists were asking the Foreign Ministry for comment. Instead of releasing a statement later in the week, Israel decided to do so on Sunday.
“We are not getting too excited about their changing the versions of what happened,” continued the diplomat. “This is what they have to say.”
The meeting itself lasted two hours, said the source, and was anything but incidental, as the Libyans have since claimed. Italy was closely involved in the planning, and the Americans were aware of the meeting.
Egypt, Libya’s neighbor and one of the leading foreign players in the country, was not involved, the official said.
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.
Khalid al-Mishri, an Islamist politician who was the chair of the State Council, a Tripoli-based legislative body, condemned Mangoush for meeting Cohen and called for the dismissal of Dbeibah’s government, which is close to the US and the West.
“This government has crossed all prohibited lines and must be brought down,” he wrote on X.
The east-based House of Representatives also slammed the meeting as a “legal and moral crime.” It called for an emergency session Monday in the eastern city of Benghazi.
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 Khalifa 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.
Agencies contributed to this report.