Hundreds of people demonstrated overnight in Libya’s capital and other provinces, angered by reports that the country’s foreign minister met with Israel’s top diplomat last week in Rome.
Videos circulated on social media showed protesters demonstrating in front of the foreign ministry building in Tripoli on Sunday night, calling for Najla al-Mangoush’s dismissal.
Some protesters also called for the resignation of Prime Minister Abdul Hamid Dbeibeh, gathering at his residence in Tripoli and setting fire to it. It was not immediately clear if Dbeibeh was at the residence.
Al Jazeera’s Malik Traina said there is widespread anger in Libya over al-Mangoush’s meeting, with protests starting late on Sunday across the west of the country.
“Protesters in al-Zawiya were calling for the downfall of the entire government due to this meeting, and people were closing down roads and burning tyres in Tajoura and Soug al-Jumaa. We saw other protests in Misrata,” he said, speaking from Tripoli.
Dbeibeh announced al-Mangoush’s “temporary suspension”, replacing her with Fathallah al-Zani, the current youth minister, as interim foreign minister. He added that al-Mangoush would be subject to an “administrative investigation”.
Traina said both legislative bodies, the Tripoli-based High Council of State and the Tobruk-based House of Representatives (HoR), have condemned the meeting and called for an emergency session to discuss it, with the HoR describing the meeting as a “crime committed against the Libyan people”.
An announcement a week later
The political row broke out Sunday after Israel’s foreign ministry said the two countries’ foreign ministers had met the previous week in a meeting hosted by Italian Foreign Minister Antonio Tajani.
“I spoke with the foreign minister about the great potential for the two countries from their relations,” Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen said in a statement from Israel’s foreign ministry, adding that it was the first such diplomatic initiative between the two countries.
Cohen said they discussed “the importance of preserving the heritage of Libyan Jews, which includes renovating synagogues and Jewish cemeteries in the country”, and that “Libya’s size and strategic location offer a huge opportunity for the state of Israel”.
However, the Libyan foreign ministry said al-Mangoush had “refused to meet with any party” representing Israel.
“What happened in Rome was a chance and unofficial encounter, during a meeting with his Italian counterpart, which did not involve any discussion, agreement or consultation,” the ministry said in a statement.
It also accused Israel of trying to “present this incident” as a “meeting or talks”.
The ministry underlined that it “completely and unequivocally rejects normalization with the Zionist formation” and reiterated “in a clear and unambiguous manner Libya’s position regarding the Palestinian cause”.
The North African country does not recognise Israel and does not have diplomatic relations with Tel Aviv. Under a 1957 Libyan law, dealing with Israel is punishable by up to nine years in prison.
Path to normalisation?
Earlier on Sunday evening, Libya’s Presidential Council asked the government for “clarifications”, according to Libya Al Ahrar TV, citing spokesperson Najwa Wheba.
The Presidential Council, which has some executive powers and sprang from the UN-backed political process, includes three members representing the three Libyan regions.
Their request said the meeting “does not reflect the foreign policy of the Libyan state, does not represent the Libyan national constants and is considered a violation of Libyan laws which criminalise normalisation with the ‘Zionist entity’”.
It asked the head of government “to apply the law if the meeting took place”.
According to The Associated Press, an anonymous Libyan government official said the normalisation of relations between Libya and Israel was first discussed in a meeting with Dbeibah and CIA Director William Burns, who visited the Libyan capital in January.
According to the official, Burns proposed that Dbeibah’s government, which is recognised as Libya’s internationally backed government, join the group of four Arab countries that normalised relations with Israel under the US-brokered Abraham Accords in 2020.
The Libyan premier gave initial agreement but was concerned about public backlash in a country known for its support for the Palestinian cause, the official said.
On Monday, an Israeli official told the Reuters news agency that the meeting between al-Mangoush and Cohen was agreed in advance “at the highest levels” in Libya and lasted more than an hour.
Separately, Israel’s former foreign minister and prime minister Yair Lapid criticised Cohen for going public with the sensitive meeting.
“Countries of the world this morning are looking at the irresponsible leak of the meeting of the Israeli and Libyan foreign minister and asking themselves: Is it possible to manage foreign relations with this country? Is it possible to trust this country?” Lapid said in a statement.
Israel has normalised relations with some Arab countries in recent years as part of US-backed deals known as the Abraham Accords.
However, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s hardline government has come under intense criticism from Arab states because of surging violence in the occupied West Bank and for backing the expansion of Jewish settlements in the occupied territory.