From Gaddafi to Haftar: The covert history of Libya-Israel relations

From Gaddafi to Haftar: The covert history of Libya-Israel relations
5 min read
30 August, 2023
Behind closed doors, Libya has had discreet interactions with Israel involving compensation offers, military support, and talk of normalisation despite staunch opposition from the Libyan public.
Libyans gather to show solidarity with Palestine after Israel's military assault on Gaza in May 2021 [Mucahit Aydemir/Anadolu Agency via Getty]

This week has seen outrage in Tripoli following a meeting between Libyan Foreign Minister Najla Mangoush and her Israeli counterpart Eli Cohen, despite the countries sharing no diplomatic relations.

For decades Libya's staunch support for the Palestinian cause has led it to shun official relations with Israel, there has been a stream of covert attempts to establish dialogue and develop relations between the two countries.

In recent years these efforts have been spearheaded by powerful warlord General Khalifa Haftar, who effectively rules much of eastern Libya.

Saif al-Islam Gaddafi – getting the ball rolling

In the latter years of the Gaddafi regime, there were attempts to reach out to Jews of Libyan origin, the last of whom had been forced to leave Libya in 1976 (many more had been forced to leave prior to that, in 1967) following mass protests. Libyan Jews had long demanded the right to return to their country of origin and compensation for property lost.

In 2009, Gaddafi's son Saif al-Islam made a speech as part of his "Tomorrow's Libya" project – aimed at modernising his father's regime: he said the Libyan regime was ready to compensate Jews of Libyan descent for property they had lost - including those who had moved to Israel, and raised the possibility of their return to Libya, where they would enjoy full civil rights.

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However, Saif al-Islam stressed that compensating Libyan Jews didn't "mean opening communications with Israel to establish relations" which was "inconceivable at present".

This came after Israeli media reported that Israeli MK Moshe Kahlon (of Libyan descent) had also been invited to Libya where establishing official relations "might" be discussed.

Then, in 2010, Muammar Gaddafi met several Jews of Libyan descent residing in Italy during an official visit to Rome, before inviting them to Libya. They came in September and Libyan State TV aired scenes of Gaddafi's lavish welcome.

Rhodes Meeting

Following the 2011 revolution and the fall of Gaddafi, there were a number of instances of Jews of Libyan descent returning to Libya but they faced arrest, interrogation and deportation. Since 2012, public discussion around Libyan Jews' desire to return has declined, as Libyans' concerns about potential links between those Jews and Israel have increased.  

The first official meeting between Libyan and Israeli officials was in Rhodes in July 2017, at a conference facilitated by the Union of Libyan Jews, about promoting "reconciliation and dialogue between Libyan Jews and Arabs".

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In 2018, Libyans objected when Raphael Luzon, who chairs the Union of Libyan Jews, commented on the former Government of National Accord's plan to appoint advisers from the union to oversee economic affairs. However, the Presidential Council then denied the claims.

Since then, official Libyan-Israeli relations have not been raised openly, until things exploded on Sunday when Israeli media reported Libyan foreign minister Najla Mangoush's meeting with Israeli counterpart Eli Cohen in Rome last week. Libyan PM Abdul Hamid Dbeibah quickly fired her, claiming he didn't know about the meeting.

While Libyan public figures and organisations have reacted furiously to the notion of official contact with Tel Aviv, retired General Khalifa Haftar has remained silent.

Haftar's attempts to garner support

This could be because in recent years Haftar has become the figure most associated with Israeli efforts to intervene in Libya, as Israel searches for an ally on the ground in the ongoing Libyan conflict.  

Haftar's contact with Israel has varied in purpose, ranging from seeking military assistance and diplomatic support, to attempts to bolster his position among the regional and international powers and enlist help to counter lawsuits against him in the US from Libyan families whose relatives have been killed in his wars on Benghazi and Tripoli.  

According to Israeli media outlets, Haftar's contact with Israel began in 2014 after he launched "Operation Dignity" against rival militias in Benghazi.

The following year the parliament of the-then internationally recognised - but disputed - Libyan government in Tobruk declared him army commander and promoted him to the rank of lieutenant general. Haftar, viewed by many as a warlord - then reached out to Israel to secure support for Operation Dignity, according to Israeli site Debka, which has close links to Israeli military intelligence.

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The site said in a 2015 report that Haftar had met with Israeli army and intelligence representatives in Amman, where Israel agreed to provide weapons in exchange for oil contracts.

Media reports have since continued to leak about Haftar's meetings with Israeli officials, including Mossad officers. These intensified between 2017 and 2019, as he continued seeking Israel's support, with a number of Western media outlets claiming that Haftar received Israeli military support during his assault on Tripoli during 2019 and 2020.

In December 2019, Israeli newspaper Maariv reported that Abdul Hadi Al-Hweij, foreign minister of the alternative Libyan government based in eastern Libya (aligned with Haftar), had endorsed normalisation between Libya and Israel - provided the Palestinian issue was "resolved".

Al-Hweij reportedly said his government was "committed to the Arab League decisions on the Palestinian issue, but at the same time supports regional peace and counter-terrorism efforts". However, after a wave of public criticism he denied he had made the statements.

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Meanwhile, Haftar's covert relations with Israel continued. In November 2021, Haaretz reported that a plane belonging to Haftar carrying his son Saddam had landed in Ben Gurion airport and stayed several hours, during which Saddam Haftar met Israeli officials to discuss establishing diplomatic relations in order to secure Israeli military assistance.

This article is based on an article which appeared in our Arabic edition by Osama Ali on 28 August 2023. To read the original article click here.