Israel meeting sparks outrage in Libya

The silhouette of a man wearing a cap against the backdrop of fire and burning tires

Libyan demonstrators burn tires to protest the recent meeting between then-foreign minister Najla El Mangoush and her Israeli counterpart Eli Cohen.

Str / EFE ZUMA Press / APA images

Protests have been held in Libya this week following contact between the country’s foreign minister and her Israeli counterpart.

On Sunday, Eli Cohen, Israel’s foreign minister, stated that he had met Najla El Mangoush, then his Libyan counterpart, in Rome the previous week.

Libya and Israel have no formal diplomatic relations, although there have been various clandestine dealings and attempts to give the contacts an official status in the past.

In a social media post – written in Arabic – Israel’s foreign ministry called the recent meeting a “first step” toward diplomatic relations with Libya, which would include “Israeli humanitarian assistance.”

The idea that relations with Israel could be normalized met firm opposition at street level in Libya, with protests held in Tripoli and other cities. Demonstrators have also stormed the Libyan foreign ministry, according to reports.

Israeli officials later removed the posts about the recent meeting.

Libya’s foreign ministry said that Najla El Mangoush “refused to meet any representatives of the Zionist entity.”

The ministry said that “what happened in Rome was unofficial and incidental.”

The encounter between Cohen and El Mangoush took place “during a meeting with the Italian foreign minister, and it did not include any discussions, agreements or consultations.”

The ministry stated “its total and absolute rejection of normalization with the Zionist entity” and expressed support for the Palestinian struggle.

Empty gestures

An unnamed Israeli official quoted by Reuters contradicted claims that the meeting was incidental, saying it lasted two hours and was approved “at the highest levels in Libya.”

After news of the meeting broke, El Mangoush fled Libya for Turkey. El Mangoush was fired from the foreign ministry post amid calls for the whole Libyan government to resign.

The US government and the Israeli opposition condemned Cohen’s comments on the meeting. The comments have been regarded as premature by some Israeli political figures, who fear they could hamper efforts to establish formal relations with Libya.

US officials spoke privately with Cohen and other Israeli foreign ministry officials and “protested Israel’s handling of the issue,” the Israeli journalist Barak Ravid has reported.

The Biden administration had been pushing Libya to join the Abraham Accords for two years, Ravid wrote, citing unnamed sources.

The Abraham Accords are the framework for the normalization agreements brokered in 2020 by the Trump administration between Israel, the United Arab Emirates and several other Arab regimes. The public relations messaging in those deals focused on false claims that they achieved something for Palestinian rights, when the opposite is the case.

The first deal under the Abraham Accords was signed between Israel and the UAE in August 2020.

It was spun as Israel agreeing to suspend plans to annex large swaths of the occupied West Bank. In reality, the US – coordinating with Israel – put those plans on hold weeks earlier.

Annexation, ultimately, is only to be a formal rubber stamp for what Israel has been doing on the ground for decades: stealing land, forcibly displacing Palestinians and building colonies in flagrant breach of international law. This violent colonization has never ceased, before or after the Abraham Accords were signed.

The recent insistence by Bezalel Smotrich, the ultra-far-right Israeli finance minister, that no concessions will be offered to Palestinians during any normalization of relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia is refreshing.

It throws cold water on any claim that these deals benefit Palestinians.

All gestures towards Palestinians in the name of normalization are completely empty. As such gestures obscure the real purpose of the Abraham Accords – to establish or increase economic and military cooperation – it would be better if no such gestures are made.

Some normalization deals were achieved through a mixture of intimidation and incentives.

The Biden administration is concerned that Cohen’s decision to confirm his meeting with Najla El Mangoush and the ensuing protests will not only kill efforts to normalize relations between Israel and Libya but “will also harm efforts that are underway with other Arab countries,” Barak Ravid reported.

The Israeli opposition has blasted Cohen’s “amateurish” handling of the situation.

“This is what happens when Eli Cohen, a man without any background in the field, is appointed foreign minister,” Yair Lapid, leader of the Israeli opposition, said. Lapid has previously been Israel’s foreign minister and prime minister.

“The incident with the Libyan foreign minister was amateurish, irresponsible and a grave failure of judgment,” he added.

Benny Gantz – Israel’s former defense minister – similarly blasted the lack of strategy on Cohen’s part.

“When you do everything for PR and headlines, with zero responsibility and forward thinking – this is what happens,” Gantz wrote on Twitter.

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Tamara Nassar

Tamara Nassar is an assistant editor at The Electronic Intifada.