ISRAEL AT WAR - DAY 144

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Libya fires its FM amid furor over her unprecedented meet with Israeli counterpart

2 Libyan officials say their PM was aware of talks, and Najla Mangoush flees to Turkey for safety, as storm grows after Israel’s Eli Cohen publicized their Italy sit-down

File: Najla Mangoush, Libya's Minister of Foreign Affairs, attends a signing ceremony in Doha on August 8, 2022. (Mustafa ABUMUNES / AFP)
File: Najla Mangoush, Libya's Minister of Foreign Affairs, attends a signing ceremony in Doha on August 8, 2022. (Mustafa ABUMUNES / AFP)

Libyan Foreign Minister Najla Mangoush was dismissed Monday over a meeting she held last week with her Israeli counterpart Eli Cohen, amid ballooning political fallout in both Jerusalem and Tripoli over the decision by Israel’s top diplomat to reveal that the two ministers held a “historic” sit-down last week in Rome.

Following Cohen’s announcement of the meeting on Sunday, which was met with outrage in Libya, Prime Minister Abdul Hamid al-Dbeibeh suspended Mangoush from her role and said an investigation panel would be formed to look into the meeting. Libya’s foreign ministry denied any formal talks were held with Cohen as scattered protests broke out in Tripoli and other western Libyan towns.

On Monday Dbeibeh fired Mangoush, Reuters reported, and a Libyan foreign ministry official confirmed Mangoush fled to Turkey out of concern for her safety.

Dbeibeh’s decision to suspend 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)

Meanwhile, the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem issued its first official reaction after Cohen was widely castigated for formally publicizing his meeting with Mangosuh, in a seeming effort to shift responsibility for his announcement by claiming he only issued it after a “leak” of details about the encounter that neither his office nor the ministry was behind.

“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.

Earlier, an Israeli diplomat told The Times of Israel that Jerusalem revealed the meeting several days earlier than intended because it had been leaked to the media already.

Jerusalem diplomatic sources said the fact of the meeting was always to have been publicized, but the announcement was advanced because reporters were asking about it. A Foreign Ministry source told Channel 12 that the ministry called Mangoush’s office to tell them about the imminent announcement.

Senior government officials quoted by Hebrew media said Cohen had caused serious damage to Israel’s foreign relations, and warned that Arab leaders would be deterred from forging tighter bonds.

Opposition Leader Yair Lapid said, “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?

“The incident with the Libyan foreign minister was amateurish, irresponsible and a grave failure of judgment,” Lapid added. “This is a morning of national shame and putting a life in danger for a headline.”

In off-script remarks at a ceremony for national service volunteers on Thursday, Cohen had told the audience that he was excited about Israel exploring ties with another Muslim nation. He did not mention Libya by name, but aides sought to cut off his remarks nevertheless.

In its statement Sunday, the Foreign Ministry said Cohen and Mangoush had spoken in Italy last week, in the first-ever official meeting between the countries’ top diplomats, 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.

Foreign Minister Eli Cohen attends an event at the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem, May 17, 2023. (Oren Ben Hakoon/Flash90)

But in a swift turn of events that appeared to quash the notion of meaningful progress in relations between the countries as Cohen implied, the Libyan government denied the meeting had been formalized in advance and sought to downplay its significance.

“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.

Rather, it said, “the minister affirmed Libya’s constants on the Palestinian issue in a clear and unambiguous manner.”

Furthermore, it stressed that it “categorically denies the reported exploitation by the Hebrew and international press and their attempt to confer upon the incident the character of meetings, talks, or even arranging or just considering holding such meetings.”

It declared its “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.”

Also Sunday, Raphael Luzon, chairman of the Union of Libyan Jews, wrote on Facebook in Arabic 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.

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)

But in an interview with The Times of Israel, Luzon said he was not involved in the latest diplomatic get-together, but described the first contacts he facilitated between high-ranking Israeli and Libyan officials some six years ago, opening the way to last week’s meeting.

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.

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.

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

Agencies contributed to this report.

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