In a surprising turn of events, Libya’s Prime Minister, Abdul Hamid Dbeibah, has temporarily suspended Foreign Minister Najla al-Mangoush after it was revealed that she had held talks with her Israeli counterpart.
The announcement of these talks, which took place in Rome last week, has sparked widespread protests across the country, as Libya and Israel do not have formal diplomatic relations.
Prime Minister Dbeibah stated on Sunday evening that al-Mangoush’s suspension is temporary and that she will be subject to an administrative investigation conducted by a commission led by the justice minister. This move by the Libyan government demonstrates the seriousness with which they are treating the situation and their commitment to addressing the concerns of the Libyan people.
The protests that erupted in Tripoli and its suburbs reflect the strong opposition to any form of normalisation with Israel. Young people in various cities took to the streets, blocking roads, burning tires, and proudly waving the Palestinian flag. These demonstrations highlight the deeply rooted sentiment among the Libyan population, who see any engagement with Israel as a betrayal of the Palestinian cause and a violation of long-standing Arab solidarity.
The Libyan foreign ministry has described the meeting between al-Mangoush and Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen as a “chance and unofficial encounter.” However, the protests were already underway in several Libyan cities, indicating the immediate backlash to the news of the meeting. The timing and nature of the meeting have added fuel to the fire of public resentment, heightening the anger felt by the Libyan people.
The political row between Libya and Israel intensified after Israel’s foreign ministry released a statement confirming the meeting. The statement acknowledged that Cohen and al-Mangoush had spoken at a gathering in Rome, hosted by Italian Foreign Minister Antonio Tajani. The Israeli statement further described this encounter as the first diplomatic initiative between the two countries, signalling a significant shift in their bilateral relations.
Cohen’s comments in the statement emphasised the potential benefits of establishing closer ties between Libya and Israel. He spoke of the “great potential” for both countries that could arise from their relations. However, these remarks have only added to the frustration and outrage felt by Libyans. To many, they represent a blatant disregard for the long-standing Arab consensus on Israel and its treatment of the Palestinian people.
According to the Libyan foreign ministry, Mangoush declined to meet with any Israeli representatives and stated that the encounter in Rome was unofficial and did not involve any discussions or agreements. The minister reiterated Libya’s clear position on the Palestinian cause during the meeting. News of the meeting led to protests in some Libyan cities and prompted a letter from Libya’s Presidential Council seeking clarification.
The Israeli foreign ministry stated that Cohen discussed the importance of preserving the heritage of Libyan Jews, including renovations of synagogues and Jewish cemeteries in the country. Cohen also mentioned that Libya’s size and strategic location present a significant opportunity for Israel.
There has been no immediate confirmation of the meeting from Rome. However, earlier in the evening, Libya’s Presidential Council requested clarifications from the government through spokeswoman Najwa Wheba. The Presidential Council is composed of three members representing each of the three Libyan provinces and possesses certain executive powers as part of the UN-backed political process.
According to a letter, the recent development regarding normalisation with Israel is not in line with the foreign policy of Libya. It is seen as a violation of Libyan laws that criminalise any form of normalising relations with Israel. The government has been urged to take appropriate action if the meeting did indeed occur.
Despite this, it is worth mentioning that Libya has a rich Jewish heritage, like several other North African countries. However, under the rule of former leader Muammar Gaddafi, who strongly supported the Palestinian cause, thousands of Jews were expelled from Libya and many synagogues were destroyed.
Libya’s political landscape is currently divided between two administrations – one based in Tripoli and the other in the east under military strongman Khalifa Haftar’s backing.
Israel has recently normalised relations with some Arab countries through US-backed deals known as the Abraham Accords. However, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government has faced criticism from Arab states due to escalating violence in the West Bank and its support for expanding Jewish settlements in occupied territory.