There is concern that the events surrounding last week’s meeting between Foreign Minister Eli Cohen and his Libyan counterpart have damaged Jerusalem’s efforts to normalize relations with the Arab and Muslim world.
The affair came as the Biden administration appeared to be making progress on a historic deal with Saudi Arabia that includes normalization with Israel.
Haim Tomer, the former head of the Mossad’s Tevel intelligence, foreign operations and diplomacy division, said the affair had caused significant damage.
“Israel-Libya relations will be put on ice for a period of time. Libya is important, but much more important is Saudi Arabia. This was a big blunder because it puts Israel in a position of a country that cannot handle anything secret because everyone is rushing to the media,” he said in a briefing this week hosted by Media Central. “If I was Netanyahu, I would send a message to the Saudis that this was a mishap, and our ability to handle relations is still stable.”
In what looked like an exercise in damage control, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Tuesday instructed ministers and officials to confirm with him before holding or publicly reporting on any covert diplomatic meetings.
Libya's first-ever high-level talks with Israel and how it all went wrong
Sunday’s announcement by the Foreign Ministry that Cohen had met with his Libyan counterpart, Najla Mangoush, in Italy marked the first-ever top-level talks between diplomats from the two countries. Jerusalem said the talks took place “with the aim of studying options of cooperation and ties between both countries.”
The secret meeting appeared to mark a major diplomatic breakthrough. Hopes were raised that another Arab state may be joining the circle of peace – all the more significant bearing in mind that, for decades, Libya, under the rule of Col. Muammar Gaddafi, had been one of the Arab world’s bitterest enemies of Israel, hosting and supporting Palestinian terrorist organizations.
A few hours after Sunday’s announcement of the Rome meeting, following riots in Tripoli and elsewhere in Libya, Mangoush fled the country to Turkey and was dismissed as foreign minister. The ostensible diplomatic achievement turned into a diplomatic fiasco.
Libya is a divided country, and Mangoush represents the Libyan government that sits in Tripoli, which is recognized by Western countries and controls the western part of the country. Representatives of the alternative government, based in Benghazi, have already met with Israeli officials and visited Israel. Cohen’s diplomatic initiative, if it had succeeded, would have meant that both opposing factions vying for control of Libya recognize Israel.
Libyan Prime Minister Abdulhamid Dbeibeh announced that an investigation would be launched against Mangoush for having communicated with a representative of a country with which Libya has no official relations.
According to the Walla website, American officials are concerned that the affair will have a chilling effect on other countries and will deter them from engaging in efforts to normalize ties with Israel.
“This killed the channel of talks with Libya and made our efforts to advance [Israel’s] normalization with other countries far more difficult,” said one senior American official.
Senior American officials said that the Biden administration had been in the loop over the preparations for the meeting between the two foreign ministers and had encouraged the Libyans to proceed. Washington believed the meeting was to remain secret at this stage and were taken by surprise over Sunday’s statement from Cohen.
The Prime Minister’s Office has refused to confirm or deny that Netanyahu knew both of the meeting and of the intention to announce it. However, it is difficult to believe that Israel’s foreign minister would have embarked on such an important strategic move without the prior knowledge and approval of the prime minister.
National Unity Party leader Benny Gantz said: “Israel’s foreign relations are a sensitive and serious matter, especially when dealing with relations with Arab states and certainly those with which we have no official relations. When everything is done for the sake of public relations and headlines, with zero responsibility and foresight – this is what happens.”
Labor Party chairwoman Merav Michaeli called on Cohen to resign.
“One rushed publication ruined the life of the Libyan minister, who had to flee to Turkey, and caused international damage to Israel. No serious discreet international figure will want to meet with a foreign minister whose sole objective is political gain and Twitter likes.”
Cohen blamed “political rivals” for accusing him of a “leak that never happened,” stressing that the attacks won’t deter the ministry from continuing to work to strengthen relations with other Arab states.
“The Foreign Ministry routinely works via public and concealed channels and through a range of covert means to improve Israel’s relations around the world,” Cohen said. “The ministry’s many achievements in the past year, including opening Oman’s skies to flights, the trade agreement with the United Arab Emirates, two new Muslim countries’ embassies, three embassies that will be moving to Jerusalem, and more, would not have come to fruition had it not been for discrete preparatory actions and for secret initiatives that were undertaken through numerous channels. It’s a shame that political rivals who failed to advance any meaningful achievement have rushed to react without knowing the details and have accused me of a leak that never happened.”
Israeli officials claim that both sides had agreed to publish the meeting at a later date, but when journalists got word of it, there was no choice but to publicize the meeting earlier than planned. They also noted that “the most high-ranking levels” in Libya were involved in coordinating the meeting, denying a breach of confidentiality since there was never an agreement to keep it secret.
Diplomatic sources said they believed that the incident would not produce long-term damage to Israel. “Countries without diplomatic relations with Israel have no intention of meeting secretly with Israeli officials in any event, and they won’t be deterred by the event. The only damage caused is general reputational damage.”
Tomer stressed that Israel has been acting under the table for many years with secret contacts with different countries in the region, enemies and potential allies alike.
“What happened here is contrary to building up secret relations. For many years the Mossad handled contacts with countries with which Israel has no relations. But in recent years political considerations have become the only consideration for certain politicians,” Tomer said. “From now on the body responsible for such contacts should, in my opinion, be the Mossad. The Mossad is very capable of handling long and secret relations with many partners.”
In one of the more bizarre arrangements surrounding the formation of the government at the start of the year, Cohen’s appointment as foreign minister was part of a convoluted rotation agreement. After one year in the job he will be replaced by current Energy Minister Israel Katz, who will serve for two years before Cohen returns to the Foreign Ministry for year four.
Cohen’s desire to chalk up a significant diplomatic achievement in the remaining few months of his first stint as foreign minister may partly explain his apparent violation of the rules of discretion which led to this week’s Libyan fiasco.