Libyan PM reportedly held talks with Mossad chief on normalization

Secret conversation took place in 2022 under supervision of the US and with cooperation of Jordan and UAE, according to Lebanese report

Gianluca Pacchiani is the Arab affairs reporter for The Times of Israel

Libyan Prime Minister Abdul Hamid Dbeibeh delivers his statement at the end of a meeting with Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi at Chigi palace, Premier's office, in Rome, Monday, May 31, 2021.  (Gregorio Borgia, Pool/AP)
Libyan Prime Minister Abdul Hamid Dbeibeh delivers his statement at the end of a meeting with Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi at Chigi palace, Premier's office, in Rome, Monday, May 31, 2021. (Gregorio Borgia, Pool/AP)

The Lebanese newspaper al-Akhbar reported on Monday that Libyan Prime Minister Abdul Hamid Dbeibeh held talks with the head of the Mossad, David Barnea, in 2022 to discuss practical steps to normalize relations between Libya and Israel.

The report comes days after Dbeibeh fired his foreign minister Najla Mangoush for meeting with her Israeli counterpart Eli Cohen in Rome, claiming that she did so without his knowledge.

According to al-Akhbar, the revelation of the Mossad conversation was contained in a “classified diplomatic document” and was reportedly disclosed by the Libyan ambassador to Amman, Abdel Baset al-Badri, to the ambassador of another Arab country.

The Lebanese report said al-Badri “personally attended” the meeting in Amman. It was not definitively clear whether both Dbeibeh and Barnea were also in the Jordanian capital: The report says the meeting took place in Amman, but later says the conversation was “via video technology.”

The purpose of the conversation was reportedly to discuss the possibility of Israeli political and military support for Dbeibeh, who rules over the western part of Libya, in exchange for the establishment of official relations with the Jewish state.

Major General Ahmad Husni, director of Jordanian intelligence, was reportedly in charge of the practical and logistical details to ensure the talks were held in absolute secrecy.

Oil-rich Libya, which plunged into chaos after dictator Muammar Gaddafi was toppled and killed in a 2011 NATO-backed uprising, has been divided since 2014 between rival administrations in the east and west. Prime Minister Dbeibeh, the head of the internationally recognized government, rules from Tripoli over the western party of the country, while the east is under the control of military strongman Gen. Khalifa Haftar. The latter launched an offensive aimed at capturing Tripoli in 2019, backed by the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Russia.

The Dbeibeh-Barnea conversation was reportedly initiated by Jordan and the United Arab Emirates, two Arab countries that have diplomatic relations with Israel, under American supervision. The UAE participated on condition that a possible normalization agreement would also include the government of Khalifa Haftar, which it supports.

Haftar’s son reportedly visited Israel in late 2019 and offered to establish diplomatic relations between the two countries in return for Israeli support. Israel has avoided taking a public stance on the war; however, it is widely seen as being aligned with Egypt and the UAE in supporting Haftar.

The Mossad has long managed Israel’s clandestine relations with nations with which it does not have formal diplomatic ties.

Mossad chief David Barnea speaks at the annual conference of the Institute for Counter-Terrorism Policy (ICT) at Reichman University in Herzliya on September 12, 2022. (Gilad Kavalerchik)

According to the diplomatic document disclosed by al-Akhbar, the Libyan ambassador to Jordan further said that relations with Israel were being discussed in other diplomatic channels. Morocco has reportedly also been leading contacts to establish relations between the Jewish state and two other prominent figures in the fragmented Libyan political scene, namely the speaker of the House of Representatives in the east of the country, Aguila Saleh Issa, who is a presidential candidate and is affiliated with Haftar, and the president of the Libyan Council of State, Khaled al-Mishri, based in the west.

The revelation came only one week after Cohen disclosed that he held an unprecedented sit-down with Mangoush. The announcement sparked protests in Tripoli and other cities in Libya, a country known for its support for the Palestinian cause since the time of Gaddafi.

While Dbeibeh publicly disavowed the meeting, several senior Libyan government officials have said the prime minister had given the green light for the talks and was later briefed on them.

The US State Department was reportedly furious with the announcement of the Rome meeting, which was supposed to take place in secrecy. Joe Biden’s administration is said to have reprimanded senior Israeli officials for the “irresponsible behavior” of foreign minister Cohen, saying that it harmed all ongoing efforts to accelerate normalization between Israel and a number of Arab countries.

Agencies contributed to this report.

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