Interview'I’d like to be Libya’s ambassador to Israel one day'

Peace with Libya is doubtful, but contact, aided by local Jews, started years ago

Raphael Luzon claims he initiated the first bilateral meeting that led to the top-level meeting in Rome last week, which Tripoli now disavows

Gianluca Pacchiani

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

Libyan Minister of Media, Culture and Antiquities Omar Al-Gawairi, (left) with Israeli Communications Minister Ayoub Kara, (center) and the Chairman of the Union of Libyan Jews, Raphael Luzon, (right) in Rhodes, Greece, on June 30, 2017. (Ayoub Kara/Facebook - used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)
Libyan Minister of Media, Culture and Antiquities Omar Al-Gawairi, (left) with Israeli Communications Minister Ayoub Kara, (center) and the Chairman of the Union of Libyan Jews, Raphael Luzon, (right) in Rhodes, Greece, on June 30, 2017. (Ayoub Kara/Facebook - used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)

On Sunday, Israel announced that Foreign Minister Eli Cohen met with his Libyan counterpart, Najla Mangoush, last week in Italy, the first-ever official meeting between the countries’ top diplomats.

Libyan Prime Minister Abdul Hamid al-Dbeibeh quickly distanced himself from the move, suspending Mangoush from her position and launching a probe, while the country’s Foreign Ministry insisted the two diplomats had met accidentally and ruled out any steps toward normalization with Israel.

Following Israel’s announcement of the meeting, various Libyan media outlets pointed to one man as the possible mastermind: Raphael Luzon, chairman of the Union of Libyan Jews.

While Luzon was not connected to the latest diplomatic get-together, in an interview late Sunday with The Times of Israel, he 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.

In June 2017, Luzon arranged a meeting on the Greek island of Rhodes that brought together delegations from the two countries. Israel was represented by then-social equality minister Gila Gamliel, whose mother hails from Libya, and by then-communications minister Ayoub Kara, deputy Knesset speaker Yehiel Bar and retired major general Yom Tov Samia, who is also of Libyan extraction.

The Libyan delegation in Rhodes was headed by then-minister of media, culture and antiquities Omar al-Gawairi. The country at the time was under two separate governments, a situation that persists today, though in a different configuration. Al-Gawairi was then a minister in the eastern government headed by Abdurrahim el-Keib, while Khalifa al-Ghweil, leader of the rival government based in the west, reportedly sent his blessings to Rhodes by fax.

An image shared by the Libya Press Facebook page depicting Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen (left), Libyan Foreign Minister Najla Mangoush (right), and in the bottom-left corner a post by Raphael Luzon hinting at the ‘work behind the scenes’ that led to the bilateral meeting between the two, August 27, 2023 (Arab Press/Facebook; used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)

Held at the Rodos Palace Hotel over three days, the conference focused on the 50th anniversary of the expulsion of Jews from Libya after the 1967 Six Day War between Israel and the Arab world. The Libyan delegate spoke at the conference about Libyan Jews’ right to return to the country and to receive compensation for the losses they incurred.

“The Jewish community settled in Libya 2,200 years ago, centuries before Arabs from the Arabian Peninsula invaded and conquered North Africa,” Luzon said. “Jews were to Libya what the Berbers were to Morocco — they were the indigenous inhabitants.”

His personal story is deeply intertwined with that of the Libyan Jewish community. Born in Benghazi, his family was forced to leave the North African country in 1967 after a brutal massacre. His uncle was killed along with his wife and six children in the early days of the riots that broke out in response to the Six Day War.

“In spite of what my family went through, I never bore a grudge against Libya. In fact, even if I could not renew my passport, I never severed ties with my homeland,” he said.

Luzon’s family moved to Rome, where he graduated with a degree in political science and worked for 16 years in journalism and diplomacy, as well as serving as a correspondent for the Israeli press. He currently lives in London, where he is chairman of the Union of Libyan Jews.

Luzon said that the Rhodes meeting was followed in subsequent years by a series of other meetings he organized between Israeli and Libyan officials in Rome, Tunisia and Greece.

“At some point it was too sensitive to handle, and I handed the issue over to diplomats,” he said.

“Last week’s encounter between the two top diplomats was the culmination of six years of work. It should have happened much sooner, but the current instability in Libya did not allow for it,” Luzon said.

“It is also regrettable that the Libyan Jewish community was not involved in the latest contacts between the two sides, since their rights were one of the topics of discussion,” he added. “After they abandoned Libya in 1967, Jews left behind $20 billion in property. For decades, they have sought to receive reparations.”

Luzon attributed Libya’s sudden U-turn on the bilateral sit-down to the internal backlash following the announcement by Israel.

“In the hours after the announcement, some extremists took to the streets and burned Israeli flags,” he said. “The prime minister is a hostage to radical Islamists. Before going public, Israel should have probably consulted with someone who understands Libya and its internal dynamics.”

According to Luzon, the inkling of a rapprochement between the two countries initially came from the Abraham Accords. But unlike Gulf countries such as the UAE and Bahrain, which share a common regional foe with Israel in Iran, Libya is not faced with a significant external threat. Its most severe problem is its internal instability.

Indeed, its incentives for establishing preliminary ties with the Jewish state have more in common with those of Morocco.

“Libyan officials are in awe at Israel’s ability to make the desert bloom,” Luzon said. “The country is mostly covered in sand, it’s massive in size and underpopulated. It was already an obsession under [late dictator Muammar] Gaddafi, to make the desert livable and prosperous.

“One of the ambitions of today’s leaders is to gain access to Israel’s scientific advances and world-renowned technology for irrigation and agriculture, in the way Morocco did.”

Luzon also claimed that some Israeli technologies are already being deployed unofficially in Libya, thanks in part to his own mediation, though he did not go into details.

File: Raphael Luzon in a visit to the old Jewish quarter of Tripoli, Libya, following an invitation by Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi, July 2010 (Courtesy)

Another important factor for growing relations with Israel would be to gain the favor of the US. Libya is still under two separate governments: The country’s west is under al-Dbeibeh, the internationally recognized leader, while the rival government under Colonel Khalifa Haftar rules over the east with the support of Turkey, Russia and Egypt. In 2021, Haftar’s son 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.

The international community, in particular the US, is frustrated with the lack of progress on national reunification in the African nation.

The last time Luzon visited Libya was in 2012, soon after the fall of Gaddafi. During that visit, he was kidnapped by an Islamic militia and detained for eight days before being freed. In spite of his long absence ever since, he is a popular figure in the country. He claims he has even received requests by local politicians to run in the next elections for parliament.

“It is a historical milestone that this has been proposed to a Libyan Jew,” Luzon said.

“I have tens of thousands of Libyan followers on Facebook, who admire me for my integrity,” he said. “Years ago, I refused an offer of millions of dollars by Colonel Gaddafi in exchange for a statement by Libyan Jews in support of his regime. Libyans admire me for my neutrality in the current separation between the two governments. I speak in favor of a united Libya, and I express my allegiance to the country, whereas most Libyans think that Jews are only loyal to Israel.”

But, Luzon added, “if Libya will remain as it is today, however, I will not run. If I were elected, the next day I’d have to start going around with a bulletproof vest. It’s a dangerous country in which to be a politician.”

“If I could really choose a government post, I’d like to be Libya’s ambassador to Israel one day,” he said.

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