Libya foreign minister suspended after Israel meeting

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Libya’s internationally recognised prime minister has suspended his top diplomat after she met her Israeli counterpart, with news of the encounter triggering demonstrations in a country that does not recognise Israel.

Oil-rich Libya, which plunged into chaos after dictator Moamer Kadhafi was toppled and killed in 2011 NATO-backed uprising, has been divided since 2014 between the UN-supported government of Prime Minister Abdelhamid Dbeibah in Tripoli and a rival administration based in the country’s east.

Angry protesters in Tripoli and other western Libya cities blocked roads with burning tyres and waved Palestinian flags Sunday night, after it emerged that Najla al-Mangoush had met with her Israeli counterpart in Rome last week.

Analysts who spoke to AFP appeared to agree Monday that Mangoush was the “fall person” for decisions made by Libya’s rival leaders.

She was “provisionally suspended and subject to an ‘administrative investigation'”, Dbeibah’s government said, hours after Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen said the “unprecedented” meeting had taken place.

Mangoush’s whereabouts were uncertain on Monday.

Libya’s Internal Security Agency (ISA) said she had not been authorised to leave the North African country, following reports on social media that she had flown to Turkey as the protests flared.

Mangoush “is on the travel ban list until she submits to the investigation”, said the security agency.

Turkey’s Anadolu news agency, citing security sources, said Mangoush had already left for Istanbul following the diplomatic furore.

– ‘Scapegoating’ –

The Libyan foreign ministry had in a statement defended the meeting with Cohen as a “chance and unofficial encounter”.

The minister had reiterated “in a clear and unambiguous manner Libya’s position regarding the Palestinian cause”, it said, while accusing Israel of trying to “present this incident” as a “meeting or talks”.

Libya expert Anas El Gomati of the Sadeq Institute said that Dbeibah, his rival military strongman Khalifa Haftar and the eastern-based parliament that backs him all knew about the meeting.

They “have used Libya’s first female foreign minister as the fall person for decisions they all partook in,” Gomati said.

“It’s not about politics. It’s blatant scapegoating,” he told AFP.

Fellow analyst Jalel Harchaoui agreed Dbeibah’s survival is at stake and the meeting was spurred by “pressure” on Libya from both the United Nations and the United States to push ahead with much-delayed presidential and legislative elections.

According to Harchaoui, Dbeibah “tried to play at diplomacy but failed because he did not evaluate correctly” the response of Libyans opposed to ties with the Jewish state.

– ‘Huge opportunity’ –

The Israeli foreign ministry statement had quoted Cohen as saying that the two had discussed “the importance of preserving the heritage of Libyan Jews, which includes renovating synagogues and Jewish cemeteries in the country”.

“Libya’s size and strategic location offer a huge opportunity for the State of Israel,” he added.

The statement said the meeting in Rome had been hosted by Italian Foreign Minister Antonio Tajani.

“Tel Aviv’s backing of Haftar is no secret. Their strategic release of information seems designed to tilt the scales in Haftar’s favour, cornering Dbeibah. This move increases pressure on Dbeibah, either pushing him to relinquish power or compelling him towards a compromise with Haftar’s camp via the Abu Dhabi back channel”, said Gomati.

Tajani’s office on Monday referred all questions to the Libyan and Israeli authorities. However, an Italian diplomatic source said the Italian minister had not himself been present at the meeting.

In recent years, Israel has normalised ties with some Arab countries, including the United Arab Emirates, as part of US-backed deals known as the Abraham Accords.

However, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s hardline government has come under intense criticism from Arab states because of surging violence in the West Bank and for backing expansion of Jewish settlements in the occupied territory.

The Islamist Palestinian movement Hamas called reports of the meeting between Mangoush and Cohen “paramountly alarming”, against the backdrop of surging violence between Israel and the Palestinians.

“These meetings do not reflect the convictions and the common sense of the Libyan people, who are praised for their absolute support for the Palestinian people and cause,” Hamas politburo member Bassem Naim said in a statement.

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