Seeking distance from Libya debacle, Netanyahu says he must approve any secret talks

Rebuking foreign minister amid domestic and international fallout, premier also orders that any revealing of covert diplomatic discussions be okayed by his office

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (right) chairs the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem on July 9, 2023. (GIL COHEN-MAGEN / POOL / AFP)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (right) chairs the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem on July 9, 2023. (GIL COHEN-MAGEN / POOL / AFP)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu issued a directive on Tuesday requiring all secret diplomatic gatherings to be approved by his office, days after his foreign minister sparked a diplomatic and political firestorm by revealing a secret meeting with his Libyan counterpart.

The premier also demanded that the publicizing of any covert diplomatic meetings must first be given a green light by the Prime Minister’s Office.

The directive appeared to be an attempt by Netanyahu to distance himself from the storm set off by the news, revealed by Foreign Minister Eli Cohen, that Cohen met last week with Libyan Foreign Minister Najla Mangoush. It echoed moves by Libya’s embattled leadership, which claimed no knowledge of the meet.

It’s unlikely either Mangoush or Cohen would have held the unprecedented meeting without informing their respective premiers, according to analysts.

On 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 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.

Cohen was widely castigated Monday 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.

Libyan Foreign Minister Najla Mangoush speaks during a press conference with her Turkish counterpart at Turkey’s foreign ministry in Ankara, February 13, 2023. (Adem Altan/AFP)

An ex-diplomat, Netanyahu is deeply involved in efforts to expand Israel’s ties with the Arab world, and has continually trumpeted his achievements in securing normalization deals under the Abraham Accords and his work to forge ties with more countries.

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

In its first official reaction to the backlash earlier Monday, the Foreign Ministry issued a statement that appeared to try to shift responsibility for Cohen’s announcement by claiming he only issued it to preempt 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. 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, before firing her on Monday after she left for Turkey out of concern for her safety.

Libya’s foreign ministry denied any formal talks were 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,” the Libyan Foreign Ministry said in a communique.

File: Libyan Prime Minister Abdul Hamid al-Dbeibeh in Rome, Monday, May 31, 2021 (AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia, Pool, File)

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.

One of the officials said Dbeibeh gave the green light for the meeting last month when he was on a visit to Rome. The prime minister’s office arranged the encounter in coordination with Mangoush, he said.

The second official said the Mangoush-Cohen meeting lasted for about two hours and Mangoush briefed the prime minister directly after her return to Tripoli. The official said the meeting was tied to US-brokered efforts to have Libya join a series of Arab countries establishing diplomatic relations with Israel.

The 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.

Italian Premier Giorgia Meloni, center, poses with the President of the Libyan Presidential Council, Mohamed al-Menfi, left, and Libyan Prime Minister Abdul Hamid al-Dbeibeh, as they arrive to attend an International conference on migration in Rome, July 23, 2023. (AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia)

Libya expert Anas El Gomati of the Sadeq Institute said that Dbeibeh, his rival military strongman Khalifa Haftar and the eastern-based parliament that backs him all knew about the Mangoush-Cohen meeting.

They “have used Libya’s first female foreign minister as the fall person for decisions they all partook in,” Gomati said. “It’s not about politics. It’s blatant scapegoating,” he told AFP.

Libya plunged into chaos after a NATO-backed uprising toppled and killed longtime dictator Muammar Gaddafi in 2011. The country split in the chaos that followed, with rival administrations in the east and west backed by rogue militias and foreign governments.

Mangoush represents the UN-recognized government based in Tripoli.

While Israel and Libya have never had ties, there have long been reported contacts between Gaddafi’s son Saif al-Islam and Israeli officials. The mercurial Gaddafi himself also apparently reached out to Israel on a number of occasions, including to push his proposal for a united Israeli-Palestinian country, to be called Isratine.

In 2021, the son of Libyan warlord Haftar 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.

It is illegal to normalize ties with Israel under a 1957 law in Libya.

Times of Israel staff and agencies contributed to this report.

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