Foreign Minister Eli Cohen met with his Libyan counterpart, Najla Mangoush, last week in Italy, the Foreign Ministry announced on Sunday, marking the first-ever official meeting between the countries’ top diplomats.
The two met to discuss the possibility of cooperation and the preservation of Jewish heritage sites in Libya. Israeli humanitarian aid and help with agriculture, water management and other topics were also brought up in the meeting, the ministry said.
Cohen called the meeting “historic” and a “first step” in the creation of ties between the countries.
“The size and strategic location of Libya provides enormous importance and enormous potential for the State of Israel to establish ties with it,” he added. “I spoke with the foreign minister about the great potential for our countries with such ties, as well as the importance of preserving the heritage of Libyan Jewry, including renovating synagogues and Jewish cemeteries in the country.”
There was a sizable Jewish community in Libya until most of its members left in the period surrounding the establishment of the State of Israel. No Jews are believed to be living in Libya today.
In 2021, a group of Libyan Jewish expats complained that an abandoned and ancient synagogue in Libya was being turned into an Islamic religious center without permission.
Raphael Faelino Luzon, chairman of the Union of Libyan Jews, wrote on Facebook in Arabic on Sunday that “a lot of work took place behind the scenes to reach this agreement,” sparking speculation in the Libyan press that he may have played a role in organizing the meeting.
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 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.
According to the report, Haftar carried a message from his father requesting Israeli “military and diplomatic assistance” in return for a pledge to establish a normalization process between Libya and Israel akin to the Abraham Accords establishing relations between the Jewish state and United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Morocco.
Haftar is currently the commander of the Tobruk-based Libyan National Army, which is a rival of the Tripoli-based government.
In response to news of the meeting, Libyan presidential candidate Suleiman al-Bayoudi, who is running for the post in the UN-backed government, harshly critized the encounter.
Al-Bayoudi accused Prime Minister Abdul Hamid al-Dbeibeh of promoting normalization with Israel to curry American favor, and said Dbeibeh has “nothing but Israel’s card to throw in the face of his opponents, after playing all his other cards to continue to remain in power… Israel is the last straw to which he is holding on before he drowns.”
Al-Bayoudi called for Dbeibeh’s exclusion from the upcoming election, for which no date has been set yet but will aspirationally take place by the end of this year, according to the UN Libya envoy.
The UN warned last week that political divisions in Libya “are fraught with risks of violence and disintegration for countries.”
A fragile stability in Tripoli was shattered August 14-15 by fierce armed clashes between rival militias in the city, which reportedly killed at least 55 people and injured over 100, including an unspecified number of civilians.
Gianluca Pacchiani and agencies contributed to this report.