Mossad source: Cohen 'burned the bridge. It's irreparable'

US said furious with Israel for revealing meeting with Libyan foreign minister

White House expected sit-down to remain secret and believes other countries will be deterred from exploring normalization, reports say; Libyan PM vows no ties with Israel

Foreign Minister Eli Cohen seen during an interview at the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem, June 12, 2023. (Yossi Aloni/Flash90)
Foreign Minister Eli Cohen seen during an interview at the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem, June 12, 2023. (Yossi Aloni/Flash90)

US President Joe Biden’s administration is reportedly furious with Jerusalem for revealing last week’s meeting between the foreign ministers of Israel and Libya.

Foreign Minister Eli Cohen on Sunday announced the meeting with his Libyan counterpart Najla Mangoush, sparking outrage in Libya over the unprecedented sit-down and a storm of criticism at home over his revelation.

Mangoush on Monday was fired for meeting with Cohen, amid ballooning political fallout in both Jerusalem and Tripoli over the decision by Israel’s top diplomat to reveal that the two ministers held a “historic” sit-down in Rome.

US officials told Israel that the episode will deter other countries from embarking on a normalization process with Israel, multiple Hebrew media outlets reported Monday.

A US official also said it “killed” the conversation channel with Libya about recognizing Israel.

The US embassy in Israel declined to comment on the report. The Foreign Ministry also did not offer a response.

Israel’s Channel 12 and Channel 13 reported that the acting US Ambassador to Israel, Stephanie Hallett, told Cohen on Monday evening that his publicizing of the unprecedented Rome sit-down was concerning. Channel 13 said she told him it was a misstep that needed to be corrected and that Cohen, in response, said Israel would not further discuss the meeting in public.

Biden was aware of the meeting, the Walla news site reported, and encouraged Tripoli to attend, but was under the impression that the meeting was secret and would remain so.

American officials were also unconvinced by the Foreign Ministry’s explanation that it released its statement about the meeting to preempt the imminent publication in Hebrew media of a leaked report on the talks, saying that Israel could have still chosen not to comment on the leak and minimized the damage.

Walla and Channel 12 news both cited officials in Cohen’s office claiming Washington wasn’t angry with Israel and had merely asked Jerusalem to “calm” the situation. Both outlets cited US officials contradicting that claim and saying the White House was furious with Israel.

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.”

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)

Following Cohen’s announcement of the meeting, which was met with outrage in Libya, Libyan Prime Minister Abdul Hamid al-Dbeibeh suspended Mangoush from her role and said an investigation panel would be formed to look into the meeting. Libya’s foreign ministry denied any formal talks were held with Cohen, as scattered protests broke out in Tripoli and other western Libyan towns.

On Monday, Dbeibeh fired Mangoush, and a Libyan foreign ministry official confirmed she had fled to Turkey out of concern for her safety.

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, and confirmed he had fired her.

Dbeibeh said he was “reaffirming Libya’s refusal to normalize relations with the Zionist entity,” the report said.

Dbeibeh’s decision to dismiss Mangoush suggested that he was not aware of the meeting. 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.

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

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)

Earlier Monday, the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem issued its first official reaction after Cohen was widely castigated for formally publicizing his meeting with Mangoush. In an apparent effort to shift responsibility for his announcement, the ministry said Cohen only issued it after the “leak” and imminent publication in Hebrew media of details of the encounter — a leak, the ministry said, for which neither his office nor the ministry was responsible.

“The Foreign Minister and Foreign Ministry are committed to expanding Israel’s foreign relations… The leak about the meeting with Libya’s foreign minister did not come from the Foreign Ministry or the Foreign Minister’s office,” said a statement from the ministry.

Earlier, an Israeli diplomat told The Times of Israel that Jerusalem revealed the meeting several days earlier than intended because it had been leaked to the media already.

Senior government officials quoted by Hebrew media said Cohen had caused serious damage to Israel’s foreign relations, and warned that Arab leaders would be deterred from forging tighter bonds.

Jerusalem diplomatic sources said the fact of the meeting was always to have been publicized, but the announcement was advanced because reporters were asking about it. A Foreign Ministry source told Channel 12 that the ministry called Mangoush’s office to tell them about the imminent announcement.

Senior government officials quoted by Hebrew media said Cohen had caused serious damage to Israel’s foreign relations, and warned that Arab leaders would be deterred from forging tighter bonds.

Opposition Leader Yair Lapid said: “Countries are looking at the irresponsible leak this morning of the Israeli and Libyan foreign ministers and asking themselves: Is this a country that it’s possible to manage foreign relations with? Is it a country that can be trusted?”

“The incident with the Libyan foreign minister was amateurish, irresponsible and a grave failure of judgment,” Lapid added. “This is a morning of national shame and putting a life in danger for a headline.”

Labor party leader Merav Michaeli said Cohen “needs to resign,” adding: “The damage he has done is unprecedented. One rash publication ruined the life of the Libyan minister who was compelled to flee to Turkey and created international damage to Israel.”

“No serious, discreet international player will now want to meet a foreign minister whose sole purpose is gaining political capital and likes on Twitter,” she added.

In off-script remarks at a ceremony for national service volunteers on Thursday, Cohen had told the audience that he was excited about Israel exploring ties with another Muslim nation. He did not mention Libya by name, but aides sought to cut off his remarks nevertheless.

In its statement Sunday, the Foreign Ministry said Cohen and Mangoush had spoken in Italy last week, in the first-ever official meeting between the countries’ top diplomats, to discuss the possibility of cooperation and the preservation of Jewish heritage sites in Libya. Israeli humanitarian aid and help with agriculture, water management and other topics were also brought up in the meeting, the ministry said.

Cohen called the meeting “historic” and a “first step” in the creation of ties between the countries.

Foreign Minister Eli Cohen attends an event at the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem, May 17, 2023. (Oren Ben Hakoon/Flash90)

But in a swift turn of events that appeared to quash the notion of meaningful progress in relations between the countries as Cohen implied, the Libyan government denied the meeting had been formalized in advance and sought to downplay its significance.

“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.

Rather, it said, “the minister affirmed Libya’s constants on the Palestinian issue in a clear and unambiguous manner.”

Furthermore, it stressed that it “categorically denies the reported exploitation by the Hebrew and international press and their attempt to confer upon the incident the character of meetings, talks, or even arranging or just considering holding such meetings.”

It declared its “complete and absolute rejection of normalization with the Zionist entity” and affirmed its “full commitment to the national constants on the issues of the Arab and Islamic nations, foremost of which is the Palestinian cause,” while adhering to the position of Jerusalem being “the eternal capital of Palestine.”

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 Khalifa 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.

Agencies contributed to this report.

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