Libyan PM rejects Israel normalization in first public remarks since his FM met Cohen

Hamid Dbeibah says ‘harsh measures’ will be taken after foreign minister met ‘independently’ with Israeli counterpart, but officials dispute his claim that he didn’t know about it

Libyan Prime Minister Abdul-Hamid Dbeibeh delivers a speech in Tripoli, Libya, July 24, 2023. (AP Photo/Yousef Murad)
Libyan Prime Minister Abdul-Hamid Dbeibeh delivers a speech in Tripoli, Libya, July 24, 2023. (AP Photo/Yousef Murad)

Libya’s Prime Minister Abdul Hamid Dbeibeh on Thursday rejected the prospect of normalizing relations with Israel, in his first public remarks since Israel publicized a secret meeting between the two countries’ foreign ministers, which received massive blowback in Tripoli.

“We affirm our rejection of any form of normalization,” Dbeibeh said during a televised ministerial meeting. “Long live Libya, long live Palestine, and long live the Palestinian cause in all of our hearts,” he said.

“Unfortunately, there was an individual in the government who acted independently,” Dbeibeh said in reference to Libyan Foreign Minister Najla Mangoush’s decision to meet with her Israeli counterpart Eli Cohen.

Hours after Cohen’s office issued a statement revealing the meeting on Sunday, Dbeibeh suspended Mangoush from her role and said an investigation panel would be formed to look into the meeting, which took place last week. He then fired her hours later after she fled the country due to concern for her safety.

Two senior Libyan government officials previously told The Associated Press that Dbeibeh did in fact know about the talks between his foreign minister and the Israeli minister. One of the officials said the Libyan prime minister gave his approval for the meeting, while the second said Mangoush then briefed the prime minister about it after her return to Tripoli.

The second official also said Dbeibeh gave his initial approval for joining the US-brokered Abraham Accords, but he was concerned about public backlash in a country where the support for the Palestinian cause is strong. It is illegal to normalize ties with Israel under a 1957 law in Libya, which has long been hostile toward Israel and supportive of the Palestinians.

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

“Harsh measures” would be taken in response, Dbeibeh added during his Thursday remarks, but provided no further details.

Israel’s Foreign Ministry declined to comment on Dbeibeh’s latest remarks.

Libya slid into chaos after a NATO-backed uprising toppled longtime dictator Muammar Gaddafi in 2011. For years, the country has split between the Western-backed government in Tripoli and a rival administration in the country’s east. Each side has been backed by armed groups and foreign governments.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also had prior knowledge of the Rome meeting, according to Hebrew media reports, which confirmed the belief of analysts that it’s unlikely either Mangoush or Cohen would have held the unprecedented meeting without informing their respective premiers.

In an apparent effort to distance himself from the outcry, Netanyahu issued a directive on Tuesday requiring all secret diplomatic gatherings to be approved by his office and also demanded that the publicizing of any covert diplomatic meetings first be given a green light by the PMO.

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

An unnamed source in the Mossad spy agency was quoted by Channel 12 as saying that in publicizing the meeting, Cohen “has dealt immense damage to the ties formed in recent years,” adding: “He burned the bridge. It’s irreparable.”

The Foreign Ministry on Monday initially reacted with a statement trying to shift responsibility for Cohen’s announcement by claiming he intended to beat the imminent publication in Hebrew media of a leaked report of the encounter, which neither his office nor the ministry were behind.

Cohen lashed out over the hubbub Monday night, castigating “political opponents who have not advanced any significant achievement” for their “rush to react without knowing the details.”

Libyans reacted with outrage to Cohen’s announcement of the meeting and scattered protests broke out Sunday night in Tripoli and other western Libyan towns.

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