Israel’s New Bid to Forge an Arab Ally in Libya Sparks Backlash

(Bloomberg) -- Israel’s latest attempt to forge fresh alliances in the Arab world hit a stumbling block in Libya, sparking criticism at home and prompting anti-government protests and the suspension of the North African nation’s top diplomat.

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Demonstrators gathered late Sunday in the capital, Tripoli, and other western Libyan cities, some of them burning Israeli flags, following the announcement that Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen had met his Libyan counterpart Najla Mangoush in Rome the week before.

Cohen described the encounter as “the first step in the relationship between Israel and Libya,” which have no official ties. Former Libyan strongman Muammar Qaddafi, killed in a 2011 NATO-backed uprising after four decades in power, was a frequent opponent of Israel and often espoused his support for the Palestinian cause.

Prime Minister Abdul Hamid Dbeibah, who heads one of two dueling administrations in Libya, appeared to quickly quash Cohen’s hopes, referring Mangoush for investigation. Local media outlet Almasar TV reported she’d left the country, although it wasn’t immediately possible to verify the claim.

In Israel, too, there was backlash as the opposition criticized Cohen for not keeping the meeting a secret. It’s a potential embarrassment for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who’s been striving to expand ties with more Middle Eastern, African and Asian countries.

More Alliances

The drama highlights the difficulties for Israel as it tries to build on 2020’s landmark Abraham Accords, under which the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Morocco joined Egypt and Jordan in recognizing the country. Much of the focus is now on deepening links with Saudi Arabia, the Arab world’s biggest economy.

Libya — an OPEC member with Africa’s largest proven oil reserves that’s been embroiled in conflict for the past decade — seemed a hitherto unlikely candidate.

Read More: A Saudi-Israeli Peace Deal? Who Wants What and Why: QuickTake

Partly that’s due to Libya’s persistent instability and political divide, which pits Dbeibah’s Tripoli-based administration against a parliament in the east that wants him replaced.

United Nations-backed efforts have failed to restore a united government, although this month saw a rare success in the reunification of the central bank. The eastern assembly condemned Mangoush’s meeting.

‘Enormous Potential’

“The size and strategic location of Libya give ties with it great importance and enormous potential,” Cohen said Sunday.

The Israeli minister also raised with Mangoush the need to preserve the heritage of Libyan Jews, nearly all of whom immigrated to Israel in the 1950s, and the renovation of synagogues and Jewish cemeteries in Libya, according to a statement.

Libya’s Foreign Ministry said on its Facebook page that the meeting was “informal and unprepared and didn’t include any discussions, agreements or consultations.”

The fervid reactions and mixed messages partly resemble the last time Israel tried to establish formal ties with another nation ruled by a splintered government — Sudan in 2020. Then, too, there was a meeting between top officials in a third country, disavowals from some politicians and the later disciplining of a Foreign Ministry employee.

Eventually, Sudan did make a deal with Israel, although the civil war that erupted in April between the army and a paramilitary group with which it shared power means there’s been little official enactment since.

Qaddafi’s regime backed Palestinian militant groups in the 1970s and fiercely criticized leaders that normalized relations with Israel. His tone, though, shifted in his final decade when he proposed to resolve the Israel-Palestine conflict by combining them into a single state he called ‘Isratine.’ Israeli media reported that his son and heir apparent, Saif al-Islam, had discreet contact with Israeli officials in the later years of his reign.

The Rome meeting, too, should have remained secret, according to Israel’s former premier, Yair Lapid.

“As prime minister and foreign minister I held talks that no one will ever know about,” said Lapid, who was succeeded by Netanyahu late last year. “The foreign policy of a country like Israel is complicated and at times explosive and must be managed cautiously and with wisdom.”

“Secret meetings that were never leaked have built relationships that, over the years, turned into historic agreements with countries of the region,” he said. “This isn’t what happened now.”

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