Many years ago I was friendly with a senior diplomat in the Foreign Ministry, although what his exact position was and what his work entailed were a mystery. He would occasionally disappear from his Jerusalem home for periods of varying lengths, often returning with a striking suntan that suited his warm smile. I knew better than to ask what he did and where he’d been, and he knew better than to talk about it.
As it happened, I bumped into my friend in an Arab country that I was visiting as a journalist with an Israeli delegation, and where he seemed to feel quite relaxed and at home. The global village is a small place after all, making it very hard to keep secrets.
That coincidence came back to mind this week when the news of the Libya affair broke. Affair, debacle, fiasco, snafu – pick whatever word you prefer. It was certainly not Israel’s finest hour, but neither was it its worst disaster, despite the media hype.
On Sunday, the Foreign Ministry released a dramatic statement announcing that Minister Eli Cohen had met in Rome last week with his Libyan counterpart, Najla Mangoush. It was the first publicized high-level meeting between officials of the two countries, and it lasted some two hours. Despite later Libyan denials, this wasn’t something that happened by chance, as the two foreign ministers passed each other in a random corridor. Months of preparation had been invested in making sure the diplomatic rendezvous could take place. The meeting was hosted by Italian Foreign Minister Antonio Tajani and the Americans may also have been in the know, given that there have been reports since January of CIA contacts with Libyan officials.
Calling it “historic” – an overused word which in this case happened to be appropriate – Cohen was quoted as saying: “Libya’s great size and strategic location afford massive importance to contacts with it and massive potential for Israel.”
The two ministers discussed possible cooperation between the countries, including Israeli assistance in humanitarian affairs, agriculture, water management, and other areas.
They also discussed the importance of preserving the heritage of the Libyan Jewish community, including the renovation of ancient synagogues and Jewish cemeteries. Libya is one of the many Arab states that once had a thriving Jewish community which was forced to flee after the establishment of Israel and the ensuing wars that the Arab world declared on it. In Libya’s case, the community numbered some 38,000. Not one remains. Collectively, those 800,000 Jews are the Middle East’s most overlooked refugees.
Why Eli Cohen felt the need to publicize the meeting when he did is also open to speculation. Some say it was his ego, driven by the need to have as many diplomatic coups as possible before he makes way for current Energy and Infrastructure Minister Israel Katz who will take over as foreign minister under a rotation deal. Cohen said that the two countries had agreed to publish the meeting (at an unspecified date) and that he had released the statement after the news of their talks had leaked onto social media. (Just who is responsible for such a leak is also open to speculation.)
In any case, the damage was done – and spectacularly so. Within hours, as major protests broke out, Libyan Prime Minister Abdul Hamid Dbeiba announced that Mangoush had been suspended from the foreign affairs portfolio. The following morning, she was fired. Dbeiba didn’t so much have Mangoush’s back, as place a target on it. She took the hint and fled for her life, as her image was being burned in public bonfires in the streets of Tripoli.
She might be the victim of political turmoil in Libya, Dbeiba’s scapegoat and fall guy (or gal). Dbeiba is clinging to power in what is officially an interim government with major problems of its own.
Since the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, Libya is not one state with a central government, but several volatile entities. Dbeiba’s western-backed interim Government of National Unity (GNU) operates from Tripoli in the West while the rival Government of National Stability (GNS) backed by Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army controls the east of the country from Benghazi.
One of the miscalculations might have been believing that peace could be brought about between Israel and Libya under the circumstances. With the country so split, the negotiations were a gamble in the first place – likely aimed at propping up Dbeiba’s regime as the lesser of two evils. The violent reaction to the news of the meeting shows that even had Israel and the government in Tripoli managed to draw up some kind of agreement as part of the Abraham Accords, it would not have gone down well with the Libyan people.
Israel-Libya ties: Not anytime soon
It is clear that ties with Libya are not on the horizon anytime soon – although that doesn’t mean they have dropped from the agenda altogether. Despite the fears that the fallout from the Libya affair could affect delicate talks and contacts with other countries, this is more likely to be a setback than a full stop.
It is no secret – really – that the US is trying to bring about normalization between Israel and Saudi Arabia (preferably in time for Joe Biden to have a much-needed diplomatic achievement ahead of the presidential elections.)
The Libya affair could be seen as one of those cases where instead of damage control, Israeli officials further fueled the flames with their response. It all comes down to politics.
For opposition leader Yair Lapid the Libyan uproar was too good an opportunity to miss and he swiftly declared Foreign Minister Eli Cohen’s work “amateurish” and “irresponsible.” Maybe Lapid has learned a lesson since in his brief term as foreign minister he managed to rupture Israel’s strategic ties with Poland. In any case, Lapid is set to travel to Washington next week for his own not-so-covert talks with US officials. This is not behind Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s back, but in his face.
Mossad officials also blasted Cohen, although that too can possibly be partially attributed to a certain rivalry between the intelligence agency and the Foreign Ministry over who handles covert ties, particularly with the Arab world.
In a statement published on X (formerly Twitter), Cohen defended his diplomatic record, saying that the Foreign Ministry “works regularly through overt and covert channels... to strengthen Israel’s connections in the world.” And indeed, Cohen has proven to be hardworking with something to show for it. Among his achievements was the recent inauguration of an Israeli embassy in Muslim Turkmenistan, strategically close to the border with Iran; the dedication of an embassy of Shi’ite Azerbaijan in Tel Aviv; a trade agreement with the UAE; and Oman’s agreement to open its skies to Israeli flights.
Eyes were on skies elsewhere in the Middle East this week – and the skies were far from falling. Israeli media made a massive drama out of an incident in which an Air Seychelles flight en route to Tel Aviv had to make an emergency landing in Jeddah and the passengers, including more than 100 Israelis, spent the night on Saudi soil (or a Saudi hotel bed, to be more precise.)
Admittedly, the Jewish state and the Saudi Kingdom don’t (yet) have diplomatic ties, but the very fact that the Saudis now permit flights through their airspace to and from Israel is a good sign of how far regional attitudes and relationships have changed for the better since the seismic shift of the 2020 Abraham Accords.
Aware of how easy it is to jeopardize existing and future ties, Prime Minister Netanyahu on Tuesday declared that all future secret diplomatic meetings by any government ministry must receive advance approval from his office.
During secret negotiations, silence is the golden rule. If you’re going to talk, talk – don’t shoot your mouth off.