The secret meeting in Rome between Israel's Foreign Minister Eli Cohen and his Libyan counterpart, Najla Mangoush on Sunday, sparked anger and protests against the meeting in Libya hours after it became public.
The first to pay the price for the covert meeting was Mangoush herself. She was suspended from her position, after which the country published the letter issued to her by Libyan Prime Minister Abdul Hamid al-Dbeibeh, about his appointment of an interim replacement for the role.
Later, the Alwasat news outlet headquartered in Libya reported that, according to security sources, the minister had escaped the country and headed to Turkey. The report from the site could not be verified.
Initial reports about Mangoush’s possible departure spread on social media after a Falcon plane belonging to the Libyan government took off at night and landed in Istanbul early in the morning. There has been no official response regarding this flight and who boarded it.
The Libyan Foreign Ministry later published its version of the meeting and claimed that the foreign minister "firmly refused to hold a meeting with any Israeli representative and stands by her refusal. What happened in Rome was an unplanned and unofficial encounter during her meeting with the Italian foreign minister."
According to the ministry's statement: "There were no discussions or agreements made, quite the opposite; the minister presented her uncompromising stance and did not retract from her position regarding the Palestinian issue."
The meeting between the two foreign ministers took place at the residence of the Italian foreign minister, but it was not spontaneous, according to sources in Jerusalem. Meetings with senior Libyan officials preceded the meeting, including with Mangoush herself.
The announcement of Mangoush’s suspension came after spontaneous protests erupted primarily in Libya’s eastern areas, which are considered disconnected from the west. Media outlets in the country and the Arab world reported several demonstrations taking place in various cities in Libya, where Israeli flags were also burned in protest of the meeting between the two foreign ministers.
In addition, Libya’s Presidential Council reportedly has appealed to al-Dbeibeh in a request to open an investigation to understand the circumstances under which the foreign minister met with Cohen in Italy. Members of the Justice and Construction Party, affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood, criticized the meeting.
"We condemn the reports in the Israeli media about the meeting between the two foreign ministers,” the party said in a statement. “This step, which hurts the entire Libyan people, requires clarification." The party demanded the prime minister dismiss the foreign minister from her position and described the move as a "red line that mustn’t be crossed."
Other parliament members in Libya also demanded clarifications from the government regarding the meeting, and some even called for an official and public apology from the government.
Mangoush began acting in the Libyan political sphere after the removal of President Muammar al-Qaddafi in 2011 and has served as the foreign minister in the Tripoli government (western Libya) under the leadership of Prime Minister Abdul Hamid al-Dbeibeh since its establishment in March 2021. Mangoush is the first woman to hold this position in Libya.
The political landscape in Libya is divided, with a ceasefire maintained between the West (Tripoli) and the East (Benghazi) that was achieved at the end of 2020.
Mangoush and Cohen’s meeting marks the first-ever between the foreign ministers of the two countries, which have no official diplomatic ties. Foreign Ministry Director-General Ronen Levi also was present.
The ministers discussed the historical ties between the two nations, the heritage of the Jews of Libya, the possibility of collaboration between the countries, and Israeli humanitarian aid.
According to Cohen, "This historic meeting is a first step in the relationship between Israel and Libya. Libya’s size and location give the relationship enormous significance and huge potential for the State of Israel."
He added: "I spoke with the minister about the immense potential for both countries, which also includes renovating synagogues and Jewish cemeteries in the country."
Most of the Jewish community in Libya emigrated to Israel starting in the 1930s and during the early years following the establishment of the state. In the past decade, Israel and Libya have had covert contacts through the Foreign Ministry and the Mossad.
Official sources in the Libyan government told the Associated Press news agency that the possibility of normalization between Israel and Libya was first discussed during a meeting between al-Dbeibeh and CIA Director William Burns during his visit to Tripoli in January.
According to the source, Burns suggested the prime minister’s government join the four Arab states that had already normalized relations with Israel as part of the Abraham Accords mediated by the United States in 2020. The Libyan prime minister gave his initial approval, but was concerned about the public’s reaction, given their support for Palestinians.