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The Takeaway: Can Libya pull off elections in 2023?

Plus, the US condemns an Israeli minister's call to "wipe out" a Palestinian town, and concerns grow over Iran's nuclear activity.

WASHINGTON — As the world's attention remains fixed on the war in Ukraine, the United Nations is pushing for new elections in Libya, another country on Europe’s doorstep where Russia is seeking greater influence. 

More than a decade after the uprising that toppled longtime dictator Muammar Gaddafi, the North African country remains mired in political chaos with two rival camps, each backed by foreign powers, vying for control. 

The UN’s Libya envoy, Abdoulaye Bathily, told the Security Council on Monday that he would be forming a high-level steering panel of “relevant Libyan stakeholders” that would produce a roadmap for presidential and legislative elections by the end of 2023. Bathily’s plan is the second international push for national Libyan elections in as many years.  

Polls scheduled for December 2021 collapsed amid disagreements over the constitutional basis of the elections and who was eligible to run. Candidates included Gen. Khalifa Hifter, a former CIA asset-turned-warlord in Libya's east, and Seif al-Islam Gaddafi, the Russia-backed son of the ousted dictator. 

As the elections stalled, Libya found itself with two prime ministers — Abdul Hamid Dbeibah, who was installed as head of the UN-supported interim government, and Fathi Bashagha, who was appointed by the eastern-based parliament that is backed by Hifter. 

The proposed elections in 2023 aim to unify Libya under a single executive authority. Many Libya-watchers and foreign officials say Bathily’s plan is a good start but short on details. Questions remain over how members of the steering panel will be selected and whether they can achieve political consensus in just 10 months. 

The United States says it's "100% committed" to helping Bathily succeed. 

Libya may not be a foreign policy priority, but the Biden administration recognizes that further instability in Africa’s most oil-rich country could undermine global counterterrorism efforts, send new migration flows into Europe and expand Russia’s sphere of influence in Africa and the Mediterranean. 

Last week in Washington, the administration hosted Bathily and senior officials from Egypt, France, Germany, Italy, Qatar, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, and the United Kingdom for a discussion on Libya’s stalled elections

US officials have also been visiting the North African country with more frequency, and the administration is weighing reopening the US Embassy in Tripoli, which closed two years after the deadly 2012 attack on the US mission in Benghazi. 

A senior US official told Al-Monitor that the administration is “looking internally and as appropriate consulting with the Congress about steps in that direction.” The official also hinted at “more regular and more senior travel” to Libya as security conditions allow.  

CIA director William Burns made a surprise visit to Libya in late January, with Russian private military company Wagner reportedly high on the agenda.

Wagner fighters supported Hifter’s self-styled Libyan National Army in its failed 14-month offensive to capture Tripoli. Its mercenaries remain in Libya, despite a 2020 ceasefire calling for removal of foreign fighters from the country. US officials, including Burns and Secretary of State Antony Blinken, have asked Cairo to pressure Hifter to end his dealings with Wagner, the Associated Press reports.

Speaking on condition of anonymity, the senior US official said the administration has discussed the presence of foreign fighters with "a wide range of Libyan actors." 

"We're not going to sit on our hands and wait when there’s a really serious security risk," the official said. "The ongoing presence of Wagner fighters in Libya is tremendously destabilizing to Libya and to the broader region."

Libya's current political turmoil is seen as part of the problem. A more accountable, representative government would have the “moral weight to speak clearly about the relationship it wants with foreign actors, including Russia,” the official said. 

Ben Fishman, a former National Security Council director for North Africa and now a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said the main role the United States can play in any Libyan election is getting outside actors on board. 

Egypt, which supports the east-based parliament, is "very wary of any elections, despite what they may say publicly,” said Fishman. “They are comfortable with the status quo.” 

Also comfortable with the status quo are the Libyan political elite who stand to lose power in a possible election. 

As a European envoy to Libya told Al-Monitor, “It’s more or less clear that some people would like to remain in the position that they are right now, and that is the reason why we are in this stalemate.”  

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US slams 'repugnant' comments from right-wing Israeli minister 

The US State Department on Wednesday condemned Israeli Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich’s "irresponsible" comment that Israel should “wipe out” an entire Palestinian town. 

Jewish settlers on Sunday carried out a violent rampage on Huwara, indiscriminately torching Palestinian cars and homes in retaliation for the shooting deaths of two Israelis over the weekend.  

“I think the village of Huwara needs to be wiped out. I think the State of Israel should do it," said Smotrich, who is expected to speak at a conference in Washington later this month.

State Department spokesperson Ned Price called on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other Israeli officials to "publicly and clearly" disavow the comments from Smotrich, who heads Israel’s religious far-right Religious Zionism party. 

“They were repugnant. They were disgusting,” Price said. “Just as we condemn Palestinian incitement to violence, we condemn these provocative remarks that also amount to incitement to violence.” 

Smotrich's comment comes less than a month after Secretary of State Antony Blinken discussed reducing Palestinian-Israeli tensions during a meeting with Netanyahu in Jerusalem. Ben Caspit writes in Al-Monitor that the extremist violence in Huwara is the latest evidence that Israel's prime minister has lost control of his own government.

"Even such a political magician as Netanyahu has proven unable to control the delusional group of religious nationalists with which he has surrounded himself," Caspit wrote. 

Iran nuclear concerns rise ahead of IAEA meeting 

The United Nations' nuclear watchdog agency has confirmed to member states the discovery of nuclear material inside Iran that is close to weapons-grade, The Wall Street Journal reported. Inspectors in January reportedly found traces of uranium enriched to 83.7% purity, just shy of the 90% needed to build a bomb. It's unclear whether Iran’s production of near weapons-grade material was deliberate, a source close to the International Atomic Energy Agency told the Journal. 

Accident or not, the matter will be on the agenda when the IAEA holds its quarterly board of governors meeting on March 6 and considers whether to censure Iran for its failure to cooperate with inspectors. 

IAEA chief Rafael Grossi will reportedly visit Tehran on Friday ahead of a trip to Washington later this month. Axios reported on Wednesday that Israeli Minister for Strategic Affairs Ron Dermer and national security adviser Tzachi Hanegbi will be in DC next week for meetings with Biden administration officials that will focus on Iran. 

Other top stories from our contributors 

• Our correspondent in Tehran reports on the death of Pirouz, a critically endangered Asiatic cheetah cub who became a “symbol of hope amid hardship and state repression.”

• Mustafa Sonmez explains why Turkey’s economy grew by 5.6% in 2022, but the working class share from the national income continued to shrink.   

• Sulaimaniyah, often called the Kurdistan Region of Iraq’s “culture capital,” has become something of a haven for artists, though obstacles remain for the vibrant and self-sustaining artistic center they envision, reports Winthrop Rodgers

 • As Israel's raids continue in West Bank, Ahmad Melhem reports that the region's armed Palestinian factions are enjoying overwhelming popular support. 

• David Rosenberg writes in Al-Monitor Pro that the downturn in Israeli high-tech is likely to deepen this year as start-up funding continues to decline.

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