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Libya-Israel scandal: No popular mandate for normalisation

How Libya-Israel talks 'scandal' exposed lack of popular mandate for normalisation
5 min read
08 September, 2023
Analysis: While the Libyan state moved to pursue diplomatic relations with Israel to strengthen its international position, the people remain firmly in solidarity with Palestine.

Arab and international media outlets, as well as social media platforms, were abuzz with the recent meeting between Libyan Foreign Minister Najla Mangoush and her Israeli counterpart Eli Cohen in the Italian capital, Rome late last month.

In the aftermath of this meeting, protests erupted across Libya, a country with strong pro-Palestine sentiments and no relations with Israel. People blocked major streets and demonstrated in front of the government's headquarters in Tripoli. 

Political, social, and cultural groups issued statements expressing outrage and condemnation. Opponents of the Government of National Unity (GNU) in Tripoli, such as the House of Representatives (HoR) in eastern Libya, took advantage of the unrest to call on the Attorney General to investigate the "crime of communicating with Israel." They also called on all state agencies to deal exclusively with the government appointed by the HoR.

Some view this move as a political manoeuvre by the eastern parliament, despite previous reports in Israeli media revealing meetings between Khalifa Haftar and Israeli officials between 2015 and 2017, as well as visits by members of the eastern government to Israel in 2021.

A criminal offence

Libyan Law No. 62, issued in 1957, prohibits any natural or legal person from entering into any kind of agreement, either directly or indirectly, with Israeli nationals and officials. Anyone who violates this law could face up to ten years in prison.

Historically, Libya has supported the Palestinian cause and provided financial and military support to the resistance since the 1948 Nakba. It advocated for the Palestinians' right of return, the establishment of their independent state with its capital in Jerusalem.

Just last year, the two countries’ Chambers of Commerce signed a memorandum of understanding reaffirming support for the Palestinian people and strengthening bilateral relations.

Following the controversial meeting, Mangoush was fired while Libya’s internationally recognised GNU claimed that the meeting was an unofficial one that had not been authorised. 

However, Israeli and international media outlets reported that the meeting lasted for two hours and was approved at the "highest levels in Libya," and that even Prime Minister Abdul Hamid Dbeibah was aware of the meeting.

Analysts have speculated that Haftar and the HoR were also aware of the meeting, and believe that Magoush is being scapegoated to avoid further public anger and scrutiny.

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A blow for normalisation

It is evident that the meeting between Mangoush and Lapid is tied to complex and sensitive issues, which have a significant impact on the Libyan political landscape and international relations. 

Reports of Mangoush’s meeting with Cohen emerged following a leak from the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The leak caused anger from Israel’s intelligence agency, the Mossad, as well as senior government leadership

Analysts believe that the revelation of the beginning of normalisation efforts with Libya and the backlash to the news will undermine efforts spearheaded by the US to expand normalisation across the Middle East and North Africa.

This is because Israeli governments have long relied on discretion until an official announcement can be made to avoid any backlash that could threaten a potential rapprochement. A leak such as this one could dissuade other states from pursuing talks with Israel out of fear of public backlash.

News of Mangoush's meeting with Cohen triggered widespread protests in the capital of Tripoli, a reflection of the pro-Palestinian sentiment held by the people. [Getty]

Within the Israeli government, Cohen’s actions were considered to be individual and hasty, as he wanted to make his mark by announcing diplomatic relations with an important North African country that attracts the attention of regional, Arab, and African states. 

Libya would have been a significant win for US-sponsored normalisation deals, paving the way for expanding to neighbouring countries like Tunisia. However, now analysts believe that it will be harder to expand normalisation efforts to new countries.

While many have referred to the prospect of normalisation or the signing of an official agreement between Libya and Israel, it would be more accurate to describe the meeting as an ‘icebreaker’. 

It is likely that GNU officials agreed to the meeting to please the US administration, in exchange for American support.

In Libya, with the current government, there won't be significant progress in this regard unless there are elections and legislative and executive changes. If the current authorities are extended, they will likely avoid this issue at all costs. 

Recent protests delivered a clear message that the Libyan people are not ready, at least in the near or distant future, to support any step towards normalisation with Israel.

The Office of the Attorney General has initiated an investigation into Najla Mangoush, which is expected to also involve Prime Minister Abdul Hamid Dbeibah. This investigation was prompted by a request from Dbeibah himself after being suspended by the head of the Presidential Council.

Dbeibah's actions were deemed in violation of Libyan law and customs. However, Dbeibah's influence and friendship with the Attorney General and his surrounding team, along with political collusion from the Supreme Council of State and the Presidential Council, make it unlikely to yield any results.

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According to political researcher Faraj Farkash, the recent scandal has exacerbated an ongoing internal power struggle and authority dispute taking place in Libya.

He believes that what happened in the meeting cannot be understood in isolation from the internal divisions, fragmentation, and political conflicts within Libya. These conflicts involve parties that do not represent anyone but themselves and lack any electoral legitimacy, as the country has failed to hold elections for nearly a decade. 

In the absence of electoral legitimacy, these internal power struggles push some of these factions to seek external support to strengthen their position against their rivals, without considering the clear public opinion, especially regarding the Palestinian cause.

In this regard, the recent Libya-Israel meeting and the public backlash that followed have echoed the dynamics of previous normalisation deals that have taken place between Arab states and Israel: while the state has pursued diplomatic relations with Israel to strengthen its international position, the people remain firmly in solidarity with Palestine.

Samira Elsaidi is a freelance journalist who has worked for Al-Arabi TV, Middle East Eye, al-Quds al Arabi, al-Shams newspaper and other international outlets.