How Netanyahu and his rookie FM turned a breakthrough with Libya into a debacle

Did the PM know Cohen was about to publicize the unprecedented meet with Libya’s Mangoush, with predictably awful consequences? If so, why didn’t he intervene? And if not, why not?

David Horovitz

David Horovitz is the founding editor of The Times of Israel. He is the author of "Still Life with Bombers" (2004) and "A Little Too Close to God" (2000), and co-author of "Shalom Friend: The Life and Legacy of Yitzhak Rabin" (1996). He previously edited The Jerusalem Post (2004-2011) and The Jerusalem Report (1998-2004).

Libyans burn a shirt showing an Israeli flag, Foreign Minister Eli Cohen and his Libyan counterpart Najla Mangoush, in Tripoli, Libya, August 27, 2023. (AP Photo/Yousef Murad)
Libyans burn a shirt showing an Israeli flag, Foreign Minister Eli Cohen and his Libyan counterpart Najla Mangoush, in Tripoli, Libya, August 27, 2023. (AP Photo/Yousef Murad)

This Editor’s Note was sent out on Wednesday in ToI’s weekly update email to members of the Times of Israel Community. To receive these Editor’s Notes as they’re released, join the ToI Community here.

It’s a safe bet that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu knew ahead of time that Foreign Minister Eli Cohen would be sitting down in Rome last week with the Libyan Foreign Minister Najla Mangoush.

Netanyahu is rightly proud to have signed the Abraham Accords in 2020, normalizing relations with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain and Morocco, and beginning a similar process with Sudan — an achievement that required him, per the UAE’s demand, to set aside plans to annex a significant proportion of the West Bank including all the settlements.

He saw those accords as indisputable vindication of his belief that, under the right circumstances, many regional states would cement partnerships with Israel — given its regional weight, its military and intelligence capabilities, and its powerhouse innovative economy — even with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict unresolved and the West Bank settlement enterprise expanding.

And he has continued to seek new partners for Israel in the region and beyond, with ongoing behind-the-scenes interactions focused on the hugely significant major prize that a potential accord with Saudi Arabia would represent, and numerous back channels to other states, quietly and slowly unfolding, generally in coordination with Israel’s vital ally the United States.

File: In this September 15, 2020 photo, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, US President Donald Trump, Bahrain Foreign Minister Abdullatif al-Zayani and United Arab Emirates Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahyan pose for a photo on the Blue Room Balcony after signing the Abraham Accords during a ceremony on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

Thus the idea that Cohen would have headed off for an unprecedented sit-down with his Libyan counterpart, a substantive step forward in a process so high on the prime minister’s agenda, without Netanyahu’s knowledge is unthinkable. You’d have thought it would be unthinkable, too, for Cohen to have elected to publicize the spectacularly sensitive fact of that meeting, hailing it as a “historic” breakthrough, without close coordination with Netanyahu.

As of this writing, Netanyahu has refused to say whether he was in either or both of the pre-meeting and post-meeting loops, instead issuing an ambivalent directive on Tuesday requiring that all such covert diplomatic gatherings henceforth be approved in advance by his office and that any publicizing of covert diplomatic meetings be greenlighted by him, too.

Given Libya’s internal dysfunctionalities and rivalries, the first-ever Israeli-Libyan foreign ministerial sit-down was unlikely to have been rapidly followed by the public completion of a full-fledged normalization process, but it was a remarkable achievement nonetheless. Cohen’s publicizing of the event undid that achievement, and caused far wider damage.

If, as the Foreign Ministry has insisted, word of the meeting had been leaked and was about to be published in Hebrew media, that still did not require Jerusalem to officially confirm the talks. A simple no comment could have sufficed. Were there deemed to be a tangible danger, military censorship could have been imposed on the story — as is routinely the case with potentially sensitive information regarding interactions with states with which Israel does not have overt relations.

Instead, Cohen’s self-aggrandizing formal announcement of the meeting predictably triggered protests in a Libya steeped in anti-Israeli hostility, caused Mangoush to flee the country, and led Prime Minister Abdul Hamid al-Dbeibeh — also unquestionably aware of the meeting ahead of time — to first suspend and then fire her.

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

In the widely quoted words of an official from the Mossad, the spy agency often centrally involved in covert Israeli contacts with potential partner states, Cohen “burned the bridge” that was being painstakingly constructed between Israel and Libya. “It’s irreparable,” this official said. Cohen’s announcement also unsurprisingly infuriated the United States, the presumed key facilitator of the channel.

The ministry has indicated that it had been agreed with Libya that word of the meeting was to have been officially made public in a few days’ time anyway. If that was the case, and it’s a big if, it would suggest that the normalization process was actually highly advanced. If so, and again it’s a big if, the fiasco is all the more devastating.

More widely damaging still, the foreign minister’s announcement will have sent shockwaves through all of Israel’s allies, partners and interlocutors — overt, covert and potential.

For years, albeit with occasional snafus, Israel has managed to advance sensitive, covert processes with innumerable nations in complex contexts, and generally done so responsibly, oftentimes seeing through such processes to successful conclusions — cementing partnerships, building strategic cooperation, facing down enemies. The assumption that it can be trusted to continue to do so has now been deeply undermined, and that constitutes a colossal deterrent to potential new partners.

Israeli passengers who were on a flight home from the Seychelles that made an emergency landing in Saudi Arabia, seen after their arrival on a replacement plane at Ben Gurion International Airport, August 29, 2023. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

By all accounts, the Saudis are still being energetically wooed to normalize ties with Israel, and, while also warming their relations with Iran, apparently remain potentially open to efforts in that regard by the Biden administration. (It would be unwise to read too much into Saudi Arabia’s smooth handling of the emergency landing of an Air Seychelles plane at Jeddah on Monday night with 128 Israelis on board: Its readiness to allow the plane to land, and the hospitality arranged for the passengers, showed it properly fulfilling obligations under the air travel protocols it accepted when it allowed international airlines heading to and from Israel to use its airspace.)

Dissent in the IDF and the tech sector over Netanyahu’s judicial overhaul, the growing signs of a faltering economy, and the current coalition’s fraying relationship with the Biden administration already risk weakening Israel’s appeal. A blabbermouth foreign minister, and a prime minister unwilling to control Cohen and all his other pyromaniacal ministers, further harm the prospects, in the short-term at least, of breakthroughs with the Saudis and others.

So, again, if Netanyahu knew that Cohen was about to formally confirm the meeting and chose not to intervene, that was an unconscionable mistake, and one that the Netanyahu of old would not have made. And if he did not know, then why not? Is our rookie foreign minister, all of eight months in office, really so arrogant,  headline-seeking and foolish as to have made the decision to publicize the meeting without consulting his boss? And if so, how can Netanyahu allow him to remain in so crucial a position?

It’s not surprising that Netanyahu is choosing not to say. There’s no answer that’s not appalling.

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