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Libya’s decade-long outreach to Israel

Israeli ties with Libyan political actors are not a secret, in fact they go back at least a decade. But the public and official disclosure by Israel’s foreign minister on Sunday that he had met his Libyan counterpart in Italy was the first of its kind, and has caused a diplomatic firestorm.

Various Libyan political actors condemned the meeting that took place last week between Najla al-Mangoush, a member of the Tripoli-based Government of National Unity (GNU), and Eli Cohen.

Mangoush was fired from her post by Prime Minister Abdul Hamid Dbeibah, and subsequently fled the country to Turkey.

Cohen’s public disclosure has been condemned by Israeli politicians and analysts as jeopardising the forging of a tentative diplomatic relationship.

Meanwhile, the Biden administration has berated the government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for publicising the talks that should have remained secret and warned that it had “killed” the prospect of normalisation between the two countries.

Tripoli’s outreach to Israel

Yet despite the outrage by Libyan politicians across the political divide, one thing that unites them all is they have also had direct contact with Israeli officials and intelligence services at some point.

“Mossad has been developing contacts with both rival governments in Libya and they are irate that Cohen has damaged their discreet work, at least with one of the two sides,” Yonatan Touval, an analyst at the Israeli Institute for Regional Foreign Policies (Mitvim), told Middle East Eye.

In 2022, Dbeibah was reported to have met the head of the Israeli intelligence service, Mossad director David Barnea in Jordan.

The meeting, reported by several credible Arab and Israeli media outlets, was officially denied by Dbeibah.

The contacts between them concerned the normalisation of the relations and security cooperation between the two countries.

According to reports, the prospect of normalisation between Libya and Israel was also discussed in a meeting between Dbeibah and CIA Director William Burns, who visited the country in January of this year.

Burns had encouraged Dbeibah’s government to join the four other Arab countries who normalised relations with Israel in 2020.

While Dbeibah gave initial approval to the idea, he was worried about the public backlash in a country that has long shown strong support for Palestinians.

Israel in eastern Libya

To the east of Libya, controlled by eastern commander Khalifa Haftar, authorities have sought to carve out their own relationship with Israel.

Media outlets close to the commander of the Libyan National Army have condemned Mangoush’s meeting with Israeli officials.

However, between 2017 and 2019, Mossad envoys met Haftar in Cairo on numerous occasions, and have facilitated the training of some of his key officers in war tactics, intelligence gathering and analysis, as well as control and command measures.

Additionally, the Mossad also helped his forces purchase night-vision equipment and sniper rifles.

In 2021, Israeli media reported that Haftar’s son, Saddam Haftar, had met intelligence officials in Israel looking to secure support in return for eventual recognition should they prevail.

Israel is just another player, amongst equals in Libya, said Touval, alongside the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Egypt, Turkey and the United States – looking to maximise their own national interests.

“You never know which side will ultimately emerge as the dominant one, so it would make sense for it to cultivate ties with both sides with a view that in due course to cooperate on a host of issues, intelligence and perhaps also do the work of preparing for an eventual political diplomatic relationship,” said Touval.

‘Israeli compatible’

Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, the son of the late deposed leader of Libya, Muammar Gaddafi, who now seeks a political role in the country, managed the Israeli relationship during his father’s reign.

Although there were no official ties between the two countries and Gaddafi was publicly a staunch supporter of Palestine, Saif sought to maintain contacts with Israel over “diplomatic and humanitarian issues”.

Most of Libya’s current political actors are already “Israeli compatible from a security perspective,” said Libya expert Jalel Harchaoui and associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute.

All the main foreign players in Libya have long-standing relationships with Israel. Libyan political actors are now thinking “can we also reap the benefits of having a relationship in the diplomatic sphere,” Harchaoui told MEE.

Libya’s main political actors are all engaged in a diplomatic race to not only win greater international recognition, but are also incentivised to build contacts with countries that they believe could further their political goals, like Israel, said Harchaoui.

“This is why Saddam Haftar allegedly visited Israel. It means basically that Haftar said, you know, it’s too bad we are not in Tripoli because we are the right people. We have the right vision in terms of security, but also in terms of diplomacy,” he added.

The Abraham Accords have also created a regional perception in the Middle East that “good actors” have a relationship with Israel while bad ones don’t, said Harchaoui.

Since 2020, Israel has normalised ties with the UAE, Bahrain, Morocco and Sudan in a series of deals brokered by the United States. Saudi Arabia is also reported to be considering normalising ties with Israel.

“The entirety of the atmosphere that has prevailed since August 2020 with the beginning of the Abraham Accords has resulted in Arab actors actually looking and zealously seeking the recognition and diplomatic dividends that would basically be yielded by the United States if they show a willingness to have a relationship with Israel,” added Harchaoui.

“I wouldn’t say that Israel has gone to great lengths to go up to and beg these actors, it was more the other way around,” he said.

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