Libya’s chief prosecutor seeking more details on minister’s meeting with Israeli FM

General prosecutor says he will establish a fact-finding mission to probe violations of rules of boycotting Israel and ‘extent of damage to Libya’s interests’ after sit-down

File: Libyan Foreign Minister Najla Mangoush listens to her Serbian counterpart Nikola Selakovic during a press conference after talks in Belgrade, Serbia, Sunday, Oct. 16, 2022. (AP/Darko Vojinovic)
File: Libyan Foreign Minister Najla Mangoush listens to her Serbian counterpart Nikola Selakovic during a press conference after talks in Belgrade, Serbia, Sunday, Oct. 16, 2022. (AP/Darko Vojinovic)

Libya’s chief prosecutor said Saturday he would establish a fact-finding mission to investigate a meeting last month between the foreign minister of one of the country’s rival governments and Israel’s chief diplomat.

The Aug. 22 meeting caused an uproar across the North African nation and in Israel. Najla Mangoush, the foreign minister of the Tripoli-based government, and Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen met in Rome in the first-ever meeting between top diplomats of Libya and Israel.

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

Libya criminalizes establishing ties with Israel under a 1957 law. The oil-rich country has long been hostile toward Israel and supportive of the Palestinians.

In a terse statement Saturday, General Prosecutor Al-Sediq al-Sour said the fact-finding mission would probe violations of Libya’s rules of boycotting Israel and “investigate the extent of damage to Libya’s interests” because of the Mangoush-Cohen meeting.

Two senior Libyan government officials previously told The Associated Press that Dbeibeh knew 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.

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

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 support for the Palestinian cause is strong.

In his first public remarks since Cohen publicized the secret meeting, Dbeibeh on Thursday rejected the prospect of normalizing relations with Israel.

“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 Mangoush.

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.

File: The prime minister of one of Libya’s rival administrations, Abdul Hamid al-Dbeibeh, center, delivers a speech after his arrival in Tripoli, Libya, July 24, 2023, on the first direct flight between Italy and Libya in nearly a decade by a commercial airline. (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.”

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.

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