TEL AVIV — Israel’s clandestine relationships with a host of Muslim states unwilling to go public about them were dealt a serious blow this week with the government's announcement that Foreign Minister Eli Cohen had held a “historic” meeting with his Libyan counterpart to discuss forging official ties.
Cohen’s reckless, amateurish move set off riots in Tripoli and led Libyan Foreign Minister Najla al-Mangoush to flee the country, destabilizing the fragile regime of Libyan Prime Minister Abdel Hamid Dbeibeh, infuriating the Italian government that hosted last week’s secret meeting and angering the Biden administration.
The Cohen-Mangoush meeting followed contacts between the UN-backed Tripoli government and the US administration in keeping with continued efforts to include Libya in the US-sponsored Abraham Accords between Israel and Arab states. A Libyan official told The Associated Press that normalization of relations between Libya and Israel was first discussed in a meeting between Dbeibeh and CIA Director William Burns, who visited the Libyan capital in January.
The uproar created by the Israeli announcement prompted an embarrassed Libyan request to Israel’s Foreign Ministry to urgently remove the Arabic version of the statement, claiming that the meeting in Rome was happenstance and the prime minister knew nothing about it. According to Haaretz, Arab foreign ministers from countries that maintain contact with Israel and those that do not warned that the incident would directly harm Israel's efforts to reach breakthroughs with other countries in the region. The premature publication also cast a dark shadow over intense US efforts to rope Saudi Arabia into the Abraham Accords.