Israel’s efforts to develop ties in the Arab world were dealt a significant blow this week – by Israel itself.
On Sunday afternoon, the Foreign Ministry released a dramatic statement announcing that Foreign Minister Eli Cohen had met with Libyan Foreign Minister Najla Mangoush in Rome last week – the first such meeting between the countries’ top diplomats.
“The historic meeting with the foreign minister of Libya, Najla Mangoush, is a first step in ties between Israel and Libya,” Cohen was quoted as saying. “Libya’s great size and strategic location afford massive importance to contacts with it and massive potential for Israel.”
According to the ministry, the two ministers discussed the historic ties between the Jewish people and Libya and the importance of preserving the heritage of the Libyan Jewish community, including the renovation of ancient synagogues and Jewish cemeteries. They also discussed the possibility of closer cooperation between the two countries and Israeli assistance in humanitarian matters, agriculture, water management, and other areas.
“We are working with multiple countries in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia in an effort to expand the circle of peace and normalization with Israel,” the ministry said.
So far, so good – or so it seemed. But what happened next was very bad indeed.
Eli Cohen sparks outrage in Libya
The Israeli statement set off a firestorm within Libya. Within hours, Libyan Prime Minister Abdul Hamid Dbeiba announced that Mangoush had been suspended and an investigation launched. By Monday morning, Mangoush had been fired, and she fled the country for safety in Turkey.
The Libyan Foreign Ministry denied that any meeting had taken place, saying that a chance encounter between the two ministers at the Italian Foreign Ministry had been “informal and unplanned” and that Mangoush had reiterated her country’s support for the Palestinians and its “complete and absolute rejection of normalization with the Zionist entity.” Protests broke out in cities across Libya and the Israeli flag was set on fire in the capital, Tripoli.
The Americans, too, were reportedly furious, and they lodged complaints with their Israeli counterparts, accusing Israel of undermining efforts to promote normalization with additional Arab countries, and harming American interests in Libya.
Israel, for its part, defended its announcement by saying that the meeting had been several months in the making and that the two sides had agreed that it would be publicized at some point. The statement came in response to a leak about the meeting, the Foreign Ministry said (the Americans countered by saying that the ministry could simply have said “no comment” and left it at that).
Regardless of the exact circumstances of the meeting between the two ministers, it seems clear that it has backfired spectacularly, and Israel has only itself to blame.
It is no great secret that senior Israeli officials have held any number of meetings over the years with counterparts from countries with which Israel has no diplomatic relations. But the officials generally have the good sense to keep those sensitive meetings quiet in the hope that their discretion will yield dividends in the long term.
It is unclear which would be worse: if the Israelis had grossly misread the situation or if they had simply ignored understandings reached with the Libyans in the interest of scoring domestic PR points. Either way, the damage has been done, and Israel’s diplomatic efforts have been set back.
This was a surprising misstep by Cohen, who has defied expectations and expanded Israel’s ties around the world, visiting capitals that had long been neglected by Israeli leaders, and gathering commitments from multiple countries to open embassies in Jerusalem.
It is not, however, unusual for Israeli elected officials, who often lose sight of the forest for the trees when pandering to domestic audiences, sacrificing Israel’s long-term strategic interests along the way.
Israelis engage in a great deal of hand-wringing over their country’s image and international standing – much of it justified. With a government full of ministers who seem to delight in thumbing their noses at Israel’s friends around the world and the values they hold dear, Israel can use any diplomatic wins it can get. It can hardly afford unnecessary diplomatic losses – particularly own goals like this one. It would behoove the country’s leaders to bear that in mind.