Libya’s Foreign Minister Najla Mangoush was suspended from her role by the country’s prime minister Sunday night after her recent meeting with Israeli counterpart Eli Cohen sparked anger in the nation.
In an official document issued by his office, Prime Minister Abdul Hamid al-Dbeibeh said he had instructed the formation of an investigative panel to probe Mangoush over the meeting.
Mangoush has since fled to Turkey, according to reports in Libya.
Meanwhile, the country’s Foreign Ministry also issued a hurried statement denying any formal meeting had taken place — shortly after Jerusalem sent out a press release announcing and celebrating the sit-down.
The surprising turn of events raised questions as to whether Israel had made Sunday’s announcement without consulting Mangoush and Tripoli, or whether the Libyan government had made a sudden U-turn over the matter due to a domestic outcry.
And it appeared to quash the notion of meaningful progress in relations between the countries, as the Israeli declaration had implied.
Israel’s Foreign Ministry did not immediately comment on the latest developments, which were announced around midnight local time.
In its earlier statement, the ministry had 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.
The Libyan Foreign Ministry, in its own communique, insisted that “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.
“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.”
Protests erupted Sunday night in Tripoli and elsewhere in Libya after news of the meeting came out, which included people burning the Israeli flag, though footage did not indicate major demonstrations.
A wave of angry protests swept through #Libya overnight demanding deterrent measures against Foreign Minister Najla Al-Mangoush after her meeting with Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen. pic.twitter.com/B3SGvG64IZ
— The Libya Observer (@Lyobserver) August 27, 2023
In his earlier comments, Cohen said that “the size and strategic location of Libya provides enormous importance and enormous potential for the State of Israel to establish ties with it.
“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 criticized the encounter.
Al-Bayoudi accused Prime Minister 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 which is being targeted to 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.