Reveals that Cyprus has discreetly hosted many covert meetings

PM: Foreign Ministry publication of Libya meeting ‘not helpful,’ won’t happen again

In interview with Cypriot press, Netanyahu says ‘it’s very important to maintain discreet channels… They shouldn’t be publicized in an uncontrolled way’

Left: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, January 19, 2020 (AP Photo/Gil Cohen-Magen, Pool); Right: Foreign Minister Eli Cohen during an interview at the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem, June 12, 2023 (Yossi Aloni/Flash90)
Left: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, January 19, 2020 (AP Photo/Gil Cohen-Magen, Pool); Right: Foreign Minister Eli Cohen during an interview at the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem, June 12, 2023 (Yossi Aloni/Flash90)

In an indirect rebuke of his foreign minister, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Israel’s announcement of Eli Cohen’s meeting with his Libyan counterpart — which sparked rioting in Tripoli and the removal of Najla Mangoush from her post — was “not helpful” and “an exception to the rule” of covert contacts, and Jerusalem would ensure it wouldn’t be repeated.

Asked during an interview by Cyprus’s ΑΝΤ1 about the scandal and whether making the meeting public, which Cohen did last week, had been helpful, Netanyahu answered: “Well, it wasn’t helpful now, that’s clear.”

Netanyahu took pains to stress that the incident was an unusual one, while also vouchsafing that Cyprus had itself hosted many such covert meetings over the years.

“This is an exception to the rule. There have been, just, innumerable confidential contacts made between Israel and Arab leaders, Muslim leaders. In fact many of them took place in Cyprus. The government of Cyprus has been very helpful over the years. Very hospitable and very discreet and confidential in enabling these meetings, including some that led to the Abraham Accords. So if you didn’t know that up to now, I’m telling you that. … But we were very careful not to reveal this [ahead] of time,” the prime minister said.

The interview was aired by ANT1 last week but Netanyahu’s comments were only widely reported on Sunday, hours ahead of the premier’s trip to the Mediterranean island and as Cohen was set to fly to Bahrain.

Last Sunday, Cohen announced that he had sat down with his Libyan counterpart in Italy. His disclosure of the meeting sparked outrage in Libya, and Mangoush lost her job and fled the country. In Israel, there has been a blizzard of criticism over the government’s handling of the sensitive interaction, and the furor also earned a rebuke from Washington.

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

Cohen was widely castigated for formally publicizing his meeting with Mangoush, with opposition figures denouncing him for an “amateurish, irresponsible” lack of judgment, and senior government sources accusing him of inflicting serious harm on Israeli diplomacy. His office has defended the decision, saying the ministry only made the announcement to preempt the imminent publication in Hebrew media of a leaked report on the encounter (though standard practice on such matters is to avoid comment).

Beyond the damage to any prospect of quiet rapprochement with Lybia, diplomatic commentators have noted the potential damage to Israel’s clandestine ties with other regional actors, who may fear any promises of secrecy by Jerusalem cannot be trusted.

In the Cyprus TV interview, Netanyahu acknowledged that “it’s very important to maintain these discreet channels which eventually can blossom and flower into open relations, but not necessarily in an uncontrolled way. In fact — necessarily they shouldn’t be publicized in an uncontrolled way.”

The premier noted that “I’ve issued a directive to all our government ministries that such meetings of this kind have to be cleared in advance with my office, and certainly their publication has to be cleared in advance with my office.”

Netanyahu made that announcement on Tuesday, seemingly seeking to distance himself from the storm set off by the news, though analysts have said it’s unlikely either Mangoush or Cohen would have held the unprecedented meeting without informing their respective premiers.

“This was an exception, we’ll make sure it’s one of a kind,” Netanyahu summarized.

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. Libyan Prime Minister Abdul Hamid al-Dbeibeh initially suspended Mangoush from her role and said an investigation panel would be formed to look into the meeting, then fired her on Monday after she left for Turkey out of concern for her safety.

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

Libya’s foreign ministry denied any formal talks had been held with Cohen. “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,” it said in a communique.

After firing Mangoush, Dbeibeh visited the Palestinian embassy in Tripoli, and vowed there would be no normalization with Israel, the Libya Observer news site reported. During his visit, Dbeibeh again reiterated that he had no knowledge of Mangoush’s meeting with Cohen.

However, two senior Libyan government officials told The Associated Press the prime minister knew about the talks between his foreign minister and the Israeli chief diplomat.

Libyan Prime Minister Abdulhamid Dbeibeh delivers a statement at the end of a meeting with Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi at Chigi Palace, the premier’s office, in Rome, May 31, 2021. (AP/Gregorio Borgia, Pool, File)

An official said normalization of relations between Libya and Israel was first discussed in a meeting between Dbeibeh and CIA Director William Burns, who visited the Libyan capital in January.

The Libyan premier gave initial approval for joining the US-brokered Abraham Accords, but he was concerned about public backlash in a country known for its support for the Palestinian cause, the official said. Both officials spoke on condition of anonymity for their safety.

Saturday saw Libya’s chief prosecutor say he would establish a fact-finding mission to investigate the meeting.

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.

Lazar Berman and agencies contributed to this report.

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