On August 27, it was jubilantly announced that Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen had met with his Libyan counterpart Najla Mangoush in Italy last week. Cohen praised the meeting as “historic” and a “first step” to normalization with Libya, a nation wracked by civil war and with a history of extreme antagonism toward Israel.
Cohen’s message was shared with the Israeli press and posted in Arabic by the Israeli Foreign Ministry. His announcement sparked some protests in Libya and led to Mangoush’s suspension, firing, and subsequent flight from Libya to Turkey. Unsurprisingly, within 24 hours, Cohen’s message had been contradicted by the Libyan government.
Israel engages in dialogue with many surprising countries in the MENA region, and high-level encounters with Libya are without a doubt fascinating. Yet one does not need to be an expert on Libyan affairs to know that such a meeting should have remained – like most of Israel’s regional engagements – behind closed doors. While it is unclear whether this announcement was coordinated with Libya’s leadership (and whether that leadership has since changed its mind), there is at least some reason to believe the announcement was not coordinated and was leaked for publication by the Israeli leadership.
To understand why the Israeli foreign minister may have made such a public statement while knowing – possibly outright neglecting – the risks to both future ties and, potentially, the life of his Libyan counterpart, we must look at the lack of popularity that Cohen and his coalition partners are facing. The timing, the motivations, and the political environment of the current government all cast shadows of doubt on the sincerity of Israel’s intentions when publicizing such a sensitive meeting.
Libya debacle: Caused by Israel's government being unpopular and allegedly racist
I would suggest that Cohen made such a dangerous announcement to desperately compensate for the government’s utter and unprecedented failure on both domestic and other international fronts. The coalition is hugely unpopular and has alienated not just the opposition, but also many of its own voters. Lacking a clear majority for future elections, the government has pumped out superficial international achievements. This includes announcing when small nations decide to open future embassies in Jerusalem, or publicizing every hint or rumor of progress in Arab-Israeli relations.
In this context, a formal meeting with a foreign minister from a historically adversarial nation serves as cheap but expedient fuel. Of course, the disintegration of Cohen’s fanciful version of reality is apparent for all to see.
SEPARATE FROM the foreign minister, the Israeli coalition’s far-Right partners (backed by far-Right voters) have continually stymied payments and policies that would bolster Israel’s vulnerable Arab communities. This includes refusing to invest in measures to counter the severe crime wave in the Arab sector that has resulted in over 150 murders this year. These blatant efforts to deprive or at least neglect the Arab Israeli community are not lost on domestic or foreign audiences and in fact, turned into the primary focus of last weekend’s anti-government protests which saw up to 100k citizens take part in Tel Aviv.
The lack of action in fighting Arab Israeli sector crime and the constant stream of blatantly racist and often inciting remarks by some in the current coalition have led to widespread international condemnation, including recently from the US State Department. An exciting meeting with an adversarial Arab nation may have been interpreted as a quick endorsement that Israel is somehow “Arab friendly” because even the Libyans meet with them.
Beyond a disregard for life, if information about this meeting was published through uncoordinated official announcements it would also demonstrate a complete misunderstanding of regional norms and culture.
In the MENA region, discretion is as key as your word. An Israeli government that shares without asking is one that cannot be trusted, not just by Libya – but by all who have or seek to have ties with Israel in the region.
The Israeli government is already accused of inaction and incompetence in the face of an exploding murder rate in the domestic Arab sector, and some coalition members have been criticized for outright calls to violence against Palestinians on multiple occasions.
Unfortunately, the cynical use of a single meeting may jeopardize not just Israel’s future relations but the life of Ms. Mangoush. It is a clear message to all that the Israeli coalition is so obsessed with keeping itself afloat that nothing is sacred, certainly not the lives of Arabs within Israel or outside it.
How can Israel’s current leaders expect the trust of regional friendships – whether existing or new, public or secret – especially when it comes to the elusive and prized Saudis, if they are willing to sell out anyone and anything for short-term domestic political points?
The writer is a geopolitical consultant and entrepreneur working mainly in the Middle East-North Africa region and periodically writes about tolerance and the region.