Inside story'We need calm to convene, but this gov't cannot assure that'

Arab diplomats: Israeli publication of Libya talks harms bid to reconvene Negev Forum

Diplomats tell ToI sides were in discussions to hold gathering in October, but FM’s revelation of sit-down with Libyan counterpart further damages trust in Netanyahu government

Jacob Magid

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US bureau chief

Bahrain’s Undersecretary for International Affairs Sheikh Abdullah bin Ahmed Al Khalifa (Center) leads a meeting of the Negev Forum Steering Committee in Manama, Bahrain, June 27, 2022 (Bahrain Foreign Ministry)
Bahrain’s Undersecretary for International Affairs Sheikh Abdullah bin Ahmed Al Khalifa (Center) leads a meeting of the Negev Forum Steering Committee in Manama, Bahrain, June 27, 2022 (Bahrain Foreign Ministry)

WASHINGTON — Efforts to hold the second-ever ministerial gathering of the Negev Forum suffered a significant blow following Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen’s publication of a secret meeting he held with his Libyan counterpart, two senior Arab diplomats told The Times of Israel on Monday.

After several delays related to discomfort with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s hardline government and its policies toward the Palestinians, Negev Forum organizers had been in talks to reconvene in mid-October, an Israeli and an Arab diplomat said Sunday, hours before Cohen’s office blew the lid on his private Rome sit-down in Rome last week with Libyan Foreign Minister Najla Mangoush.

Mangoush was fired and has since fled Libya to Turkey, according to a Libyan Foreign Ministry official.

The two diplomats said that the gathering of foreign ministers from Israel, the United States, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco and Egypt would take place in Marrakesh, Morocco, and was slated to include representatives from a number of other countries that had not participated in previous meetings.

The Negev Forum was established in March 2022 with the goal of advancing multilateral projects in the fields of education, energy, food and water security, healthcare, regional security and tourism. It has since held several lower-level gatherings, but no initiatives have been announced yet.

The Arab and the Israeli diplomats said that the US had once again been leaning on Jordan to join the ministerial gathering, which it refrained from attending last year after Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas invited King Abdullah to visit Ramallah on the same day. Amman has since publicly insisted that it would not join the forum as long as the Palestinians are not at the table.

Even the previous, more moderate Israeli government shook off proposals for the Palestinians to join as full members, and it is even less likely that Netanyahu would accede.

Nonetheless, the Israeli diplomat expressed optimism on Sunday that Jordan would attend this time.

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

But the Israeli diplomat spoke before Cohen’s meeting with Mangoush was publicized, and the Arab diplomat speculated that the revelation could well lead to a further delay in the holding of the regional gathering.

“This leak again risks moving us back, particularly when it comes to convincing new members to join, because the Israeli government and its ministers do not seem to understand the delicate situation at hand,” said the senior Arab diplomat.

“We need a calm environment in order for us to convene, and the feeling is that this [Israeli] government cannot ensure that, even for the smallest amount of time,” said a second senior Arab diplomat.

“I can’t imagine this helps efforts to negotiate [a normalization] agreement with Saudi Arabia either,” the diplomat added.

The two Arab diplomats said their capitals are first pushing for Israel and the PA to hold another summit in Aqaba with Jordan, Egypt and the US, so that Jerusalem can present some deliverables to Ramallah before the Negev Forum reconvenes in Morocco.

Two of these gatherings were held earlier this year in Jordan and Egypt but eagerness in Jerusalem and Ramallah to reconvene a third time is low amid ongoing violence in the West Bank and record-high approvals of settlement construction.

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

There’s also a recognition that whatever the Netanyahu government authorizes for the Palestinians will be limited, one of the Arab diplomats said, speculating that progress in the development of the Negev Forum will be similarly modest.

Frustration over Cohen’s conduct has reportedly extended to Washington as well, with a US official saying it “killed” the nascent conversation channel between Israel and Libya — another potential Negev Forum member.

The Foreign Ministry has claimed it released its statement about Cohen’s meeting with Mangoush after it was already leaked to the press, but it was not clear which leak Jerusalem was referring to.

The Israeli statement led to scattered protests in Tripoli and other western Libyan towns late Sunday. By Monday, Libya’s Prime Minister Abdul Hamid al-Dbeibeh fired Mangoush and said an investigation would be opened into the meeting. Dbeibah did not clarify on what grounds Mangoush would be investigated. However, it is illegal to normalize ties with Israel under a 1957 law in Libya.

Cohen late Monday slammed “political opponents” for attacking him without knowing the details of what had unfolded.

Negev Forum organizers had previously planned to meet in July, but Morocco announced a decision to delay the gathering following an Israeli announcement that it would be advancing plans to build 4,500 new settlement homes in the West Bank.

Libyans burn tires as they protest in Tripoli on August 28, 2023, after news broke of a recent meeting between the country’s foreign minister and her Israeli counterpart. (Mahmud Turkia/AFP)

Before that, there had been talk of holding the ministerial in January, but those plans also fell through amid Israeli-Palestinian tensions and unease over the new Netanyahu government.

Since the March 2022 inaugural ministerial meeting, the Negev Forum’s mid-level steering committee has met twice, and the lower-level working groups have convened several times both virtually and in person. However, it is understood that a higher-level gathering is needed to sign off on the projects currently under discussion.

In June, Cohen told the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee that two countries without diplomatic ties to Jerusalem were set to take part in that delayed meeting but would still do so when it is eventually held. He did not identify the countries, but officials familiar with the matter said at the time that the US has been in talks with countries in Africa about attending the Negev Forum as observers.

Most Popular
read more: