Libya’s internationally recognised prime minister has sacked his top diplomat after she met her Israeli counterpart, with news of the encounter triggering protests in a country that does not recognise Israel.
Oil-rich Libya, which plunged into chaos after dictator Moamer Kadhafi was toppled and killed in a 2011 NATO-backed uprising, has been divided since 2014 between the UN-supported government of Prime Minister Abdelhamid Dbeibah in Tripoli and a rival administration based in the country’s east.
Analysts who spoke to AFP appeared to agree that Najla al-Mangoush was the “fall person” for decisions made by Libya’s rival leaders, and linked the meeting with United States efforts to pressure more Arab countries to normalise ties with Israel.
Al-Ahrar private news channel, citing a government source, said Mangoush had been fired following a meeting last week in Rome with Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen.
The Palestinian embassy in Tripoli also reported her dismissal, saying it had been announced by Dbeibah during a visit Monday to the mission. Dbeibah also declared “his rejection of normalisation with Israel” and Libya’s total support for the Palestinian people, the embassy said.
In the east, Libyan lawmakers demanded an investigation into the meeting at a special session during which they wore the chequered black-and-white Palestinian scarf.
The Mangoush-Cohen meeting sparked protests Sunday night in Tripoli and other cities, when demonstrators blocked roads with burning tyres and waved Palestinian flags.
Before visiting the Palestinian embassy, Dbeibah’s government said Mangoush had been “provisionally suspended and subject to an ‘administrative investigation'”, while in Israel Cohen confirmed the meeting took place.
Mangoush’s whereabouts were uncertain on Monday, following social media reports she had flown to Türkiye as protests flared.
Libya’s Internal Security Agency (ISA) said she had not been authorised to leave the country and was on a “travel ban list” awaiting investigation.
Türkiye’s Anadolu news agency, citing security sources, said Mangoush had already left for Istanbul following the diplomatic furore.
The Libyan foreign ministry, in a statement, defended the meeting with Cohen as a “chance and unofficial encounter”.
Mangoush had reiterated “in a clear and unambiguous manner Libya’s position regarding the Palestinian cause”, it said, accusing Israel of trying to “present this incident” as a “meeting or talks”.
Libya expert Anas El Gomati of the Sadeq Institute said that Dbeibah, his rival military strongman Khalifa Haftar and the eastern-based parliament that backs him, all knew about the meeting.
They “have used Libya’s first female foreign minister as the fall person for decisions they all partook in,” Gomati said.
“It’s not about politics. It’s blatant scapegoating,” he told AFP.
Fellow analyst Jalel Harchaoui agreed Dbeibah’s survival is at stake and the meeting was spurred by “pressure” on Libya from both the United Nations and the United States to push ahead with much-delayed presidential and legislative elections.
According to Harchaoui, Dbeibah “tried to play at diplomacy but failed because he did not evaluate correctly” the response of Libyans opposed to ties with Israel.
“There are talks to create a new interim government between the Dbeibah and Haftar families brokered in Abu Dhabi instead of holding elections,” said Gomati.
“There has been pressure to join the Abraham Accords and begin the process as a gesture to bolster the deal, which would increase US support,” he said, adding: “Tel Aviv’s backing of Haftar is no secret.”
Israel has normalised ties with some Arab countries, including the United Arab Emirates, under US-backed deals reached in 2020 and known as the Abraham Accords.
Israel’s foreign ministry quoted Cohen as saying he discussed with Mangoush “the importance of preserving the heritage of Libyan Jews, which includes renovating synagogues and Jewish cemeteries in the country”.
“Libya’s size and strategic location offer a huge opportunity for the State of Israel,” Cohen said.
The meeting in Rome had been hosted by Italian Foreign Minister Antonio Tajani, the Israeli foreign ministry said.
But on Monday the ministry appeared to backtrack on Cohen’s statement, saying that neither it nor the minister had anything to do with the “leak” about his meeting with Mangoush, without clarifying who was behind the so-called leak.
Tajani’s office on Monday referred all questions to the Libyan and Israeli authorities, although an Italian diplomatic source said Tajani had not been present at the meeting.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s hardline government has come under intense criticism from Arab states because of surging violence in the West Bank and for backing expansion of Jewish settlements in the occupied territory.
Under such circumstances reports of the meeting are “paramountly alarming”, said Bassem Naim, a member of the politburo of the Islamist Palestinian movement Hamas which rules the Israeli-blockaded Gaza Strip.