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28 Aug, 2023 18:29

Diplomat suspended for meeting with Israeli counterpart

Libya’s foreign minister has been placed under investigation amid protests over her encounter with Israel’s Eli Cohen
Diplomat suspended for meeting with Israeli counterpart

Libya’s government has suspended Foreign Minister Najla al-Mangoush and placed her under investigation, after it was revealed that she had met unofficially with Israel’s top diplomat during a recent visit to Italy.

Prime Minister Abdulhamid al-Dbeibah announced the suspension on Sunday night, hours after the Israeli government disclosed that Foreign Minister Eli Cohen had met with his Libyan counterpart last week in Rome. The Israeli Foreign Ministry touted the talks as the first-ever meeting between officials of the two countries, which don’t have diplomatic ties.

Under Libyan law, dealing with Israel is punishable by up to nine years in prison. Al-Mangoush reportedly fled Libya on a private flight to Istanbul as protests broke out in Tripoli over the controversial meeting. A photo published by the Associated Press showed demonstrators burning a T-shirt featuring photos of al-Mangoush and Cohen superimposed on an Israeli flag.

The Libyan Foreign Ministry issued a statement on Sunday, claiming that al-Mangoush had rejected formal talks with Israeli officials and that she only crossed paths with Cohen in an “unprepared, casual encounter” during a meeting with Italy’s foreign minister. The statement added that the interaction didn’t involve any discussion of normalizing relations between the countries and that al-Mangoush affirmed Libya’s support for the “Palestinian cause.”

The Associated Press, citing unidentified Libyan government officials, reported on Monday that al-Dbeibah had approved plans for the meeting between al-Mangoush and Cohen during his visit to Rome last month. Upon returning to Tripoli last week, al-Mangoush briefed the prime minister on her two-hour meeting with the Israeli diplomat, one of the officials told the outlet.

The talks in Rome “crowned US-brokered efforts to have Libya join a series of Arab countries establishing diplomatic ties with Israel,” according to the AP report. The official added that the issue of normalizing relations with Israel was discussed when US CIA director William Burns met with al-Dbeibah in January in Tripoli. The Libyan PM gave initial approval for the North African country to join the US-brokered Abraham Accords, he said, but he was worried about possible public backlash.

The Israeli statement indicated that the two FMs had discussed possible cooperation between the countries and that Cohen stressed the need to preserve Jewish heritage in Libya. Italian Foreign Minister Antonio Tajani facilitated the talks.

Al-Dbeibah’s Government of National Unity (GNU) took power in Tripoli in March 2021 under a peace deal backed by the United Nations. However, a rival administration supported by the Libyan parliament rules the eastern part of the country from its home base in Tobruk. The UN-backed peace process called for national elections in December 2021, but that vote was never held. Al-Dbeibah survived an assassination attempt last year.