The Recent Libya-Israel Debacle Is Symptomatic of Larger Problems

The controversy and severe public backlash surrounding news of a late-August meeting between the Libyan and Israeli foreign ministers in Rome is symptomatic of the fact that Libya’s political class is entirely out of touch with its own people. Given the likelihood that the interim Libyan prime minister of the Government of National Unity (GNU) ordered this meeting to ingratiate himself with the United States, it seems that the decision to hold the meeting was more important to him and his cohorts than pursuing policies at home that would bring stability to Libya’s fractured political landscape. Indeed, both factions in Libya—the GNU in the west and the House of Representatives (HoR) in the east (which is backed by strongman and self-anointed field marshal, Khalifa Haftar)—are more interested in keeping themselves in power and filling their own pockets than in breaking an ongoing impasse over stalled elections and bringing about a truly representative and unified government.

“Shocked” to Find Out About the Meeting

In a development reminiscent of a scene from the movie Casablanca where French police captain Louis Renault feigns surprise that gambling was taking place right under his nose, GNU Prime Minister Abdul Hamid Dbeibah disavowed any knowledge of the late August meeting in Rome between then Libyan Foreign Minister Najla El Mangoush and Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen after the latter spilled the beans about it when he returned to Israel. Within the Israeli political scene, the announcement of the meeting was sharply criticized by the opposition (which was trying to capitalize on Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s domestic follies and his controversial cabinet appointments) as both dangerous and amateurish. Within the Libyan context, it created a huge political firestorm. El Mangoush claimed the meeting was not planned but was merely happenstance, though it is highly unlikely that she would have engaged with the Israeli foreign minister without being ordered to do so by Dbeibah. Moreover, such meetings are usually planned well in advance.

Thousands of Libyan youths closed down highways and burned tires and Israeli flags.

In Libya, news of the meeting was widely denounced on social media, and protests broke out in the streets. Thousands of Libyan youths closed down highways and burned tires and Israeli flags as a way of denouncing the GNU’s outreach to the Israelis and what was perceived as an abandonment of the Palestinian cause. Protestors also set fire to one of the prime minister’s homes and tried to storm the gates of the foreign ministry building. The Palestinian cause remains a very sensitive issue within Libya, and there is still a law on the books dating back to 1957 that prohibits Libyan officials from pursuing normalization with Israel. That Dbeibah was far afield of his people on this issue is indicated by a poll from 2021-2022, which showed that only 7 percent of Libyans favor Arab normalization with Israel.

Dbeibah therefore quickly went into damage control. He fired El Mangoush, and the Libyan foreign ministry issued a statement claiming that the Rome meeting was informal, unprepared, and “did not include negotiations or consultations.” It added that El Mangoush “reaffirmed Libya’s principles towards the Palestinian clause.” Nonetheless, what El Mangoush did or did not say in Rome was essentially moot because she was blatantly hung out to dry by Dbeibah, who sought to deflect blame. After she was fired, she flew off to Turkey.

Dbeibah’s Motives

Given that the Biden administration has put much stock in expanding the Abraham Accords, it seems likely that Dbeibah gave the go-ahead to El Mangoush’s meeting with her Israeli counterpart in order to ingratiate himself with Washington. Dbeibah is suffering a legitimacy crisis due to the fact that his term in office was only meant to be temporary. He was supposed to be the interim prime minister of the internationally-recognized GNU until nationwide elections in late December 2021. When these elections were postponed (in part because of disagreements over eligibility criteria for presidential candidates) and after Dbeibah himself violated his own pledge on February 2021 not to run for president, he stayed on in office. This decision caused the HoR to charge that Dbeibah’s continued premiership was illegal and to elect a rival prime minister, Fathi Bashagha.

Hence, Dbeibah sought to curry favor with Washington, probably believing that American support would help him in a power struggle against his rivals. In December 2022, Dbeibah admitted his government’s role in arresting Lockerbie bombing suspect Abu Agila Mohammad Mas’ud Kheir al-Marimi and handing him over to US authorities, which caused a considerable uproar in Libya. The recent Libyan-Israeli foreign ministers’ meeting in Rome was another way for Dbeibah to show that he was being cooperative with Washington. As one prominent Libya analyst, Karim Mezran of the Atlantic Council, has written, for Dbeibah and his government, “The lesson is that trying to pursue personal interests through international agreements and accords of any kind stands little chance of success if the interest is not shared with the population. The question of legitimacy cannot be avoided.”

Libya’s Eastern Government Is Not Free from Israeli Contacts

According to some press reporting, Israel’s Mossad intelligence agency has been in contact with both sides of the Libyan political divide for some time. In 2022, Dbeibah was alleged to have met with the head of Mossad while he was visiting Jordan, though he vehemently denied such a meeting. As for the HoR, Mossad envoys have allegedly met with Haftar in Cairo on numerous occasions and given some of his officers training in war tactics, intelligence collection and analysis, and command and control. In addition, in 2021, Israeli media reports indicated that Saddam Haftar, the strongman’s son, had met with officials in Israel. And even former Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi’s son, Saif al-Islam, supposedly managed the Israeli relationship when his father was in power, despite Libya’s outwardly anti-Israeli position at the time.

Whether any or all of these alleged contacts are true is difficult to say, but given that there have long been intelligence contacts between Israel and a number of Arab states below the radar, these reports have an air of credibility about them. It would not be surprising that Israel would want to have contacts with both Libyan factions to ensure that if one of these sides prevails, it would have an “in” with whoever wins. Nevertheless, despite such alleged contacts, the eastern Libyan faction denounced the Dbeibah government’s meeting with Israel as a “legal and moral crime,” taking advantage of the popular mood which remains strongly anti-Israel and pro-Palestinian. More ominously, however, there has reportedly been a resurgence of radical Islamist leaders since news of the Libyan-Israeli meeting occurred.

The Continued Elections Impasse

Earlier this year, there was some hope that the delayed elections from 2021 would have a chance of being revived. With the backing of UN Special Envoy for Libya Abdoulaye Bathily, a steering committee was formed with equal representation from both Libyan factions—the High State Council representing the GNU, and a delegation from the HoR. The talks first began in Libya, but later shifted to neutral ground in Morocco.

On June 7, this steering committee announced that it had reached an agreement on presidential and parliamentary elections, raising hopes that elections could possibly be held by the end of the year. However, for reasons that are still murky, neither the speaker of the HoR, Aguila Saleh, nor the leader of the High State Council at the time, Khalid al-Mishri, who had both arrived in Morocco, decided to sign the document.

It is possible that controversial eligibility criteria for presidential candidates might have derailed the agreement. Although Bathily has not given up on the idea of holding elections, his latest position is that a new, unified government of Libyan notables should be formed before nationwide elections take place. Left unsaid is how such notables would be chosen and how election criteria would be decided.

Entrenched Interests, Corruption, and Foreign Forces

Former UN Special Envoy for Libya Stephanie Williams has written a reflection on her efforts to try to bridge the Libyan divide. She stated that one of the main dilemmas of trying to bring democracy to Libya is the unwillingness of many members of the country’s two elected bodies “to produce elections which would deprive them of their seats and access to lucrative salaries, benefits and the fruits of patronage.” She added that these members “know full well that, given their deep unpopularity and the low regard in which they are held by most of the population, they are unlikely to be reelected.” Hence, the status quo benefits the political class, and as long as oil revenues continue to roll in and members of said class benefit from numerous corruption schemes, there is, sadly, no incentive to move toward national elections.

Indeed, it seems that oil is the only glue keeping the two sides cooperating with each other, albeit with bumps in the road. In 2022, Dbeibah replaced the head of the Libyan National Oil Corporation with an official from the Qaddafi era soon after a meeting was held in the UAE between Saddam Haftar and Ibrahim Dbeibah, the prime minister’s nephew, suggesting a connection between the two developments. After this change at the top of the oil corporation, the Libyan Central Bank reportedly sent the company $6 billion. However, this money seems to be unaccounted for, even though rumors have circulated that part of the funds was used by Khalifa Haftar to pay the salaries of Wagner mercenary fighters guarding key military bases and oil facilities in the east.

The status quo benefits the political class, and as long as oil revenues continue to roll in.

Indicative of how important patronage is to Libya, earlier in 2023 the large Sharara and al-Fil oil fields in the country’s southeast were closed by al-Zawi tribe in response to the kidnapping of a former finance minister, Faraj Bumatari. The oil fields produce over 300,000 barrels a day, and are therefore critical to the state. Bumatari had been arrested by the internal security agency of Dbeibah’s government, and was reportedly targeted because he tried to replace the governor of Libya’s Central Bank. The HoR, however, opposed Bumatari’s detention, and with likely back-room negotiations, he was released in mid-July, prompting the al-Zawi tribe to lift its closure of the oil fields. That one tribe could exert so much pressure on the government, thereby denying it significant oil revenues, demonstrates how the writ of the GNU is limited. It also shows that both sides keenly want to keep the oil spigot flowing for their own corrupt purposes.

Also limiting the Libyan factions’ freedom of maneuver is the presence of significant numbers of foreign forces in the country. Although the UN has continually called for the withdrawal of these forces, which include Turkish troops and their Syrian Arab mercenaries on the side of the GNU, and Russian mercenaries supporting the HoR. In addition, several Arab states, such as Egypt, the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar, have given military assistance and arms to one or the other of the two sides in the conflict. The fate of the Wagner fighters in Libya and other parts of Africa is in doubt since the failed mutiny and mysterious death of its leader, Yevgeny Prigozhin. It is possible that these mercenaries will now come under formal Russian military command since Moscow does not want to lose its influence in Libya and elsewhere, but the current situation is anything but clear.

The only good news for Libya is that the cease-fire that was put in place after the failed take- over of Tripoli by Haftar in 2019-2020 has generally held, with some occasional bouts of violence. In August of this year, two militias allied with the GNU clashed in Tripoli, as fighting broke out between the 444 Brigade and the Special Deterrence Force after the leader of the former was detained by forces of the latter at an airport in Tripoli. After intense fighting in which at least 55 people were killed and 146 were injured, the detained leader was released, leading to a cessation of the violence. The reason for this deadly outburst probably had to do with power plays among the various militias as they sought more influence in the government and the funding that goes with it. The episode is also indicative of how the absence of a national army has made the country beholden to these militias.

US Policy in Need of a Reset

Although the Libyan political class bears much of the responsibility for the country’s political and economic morass, international actors—including the United States—need to reorient their priorities. The US emphasis on encouraging countries like Libya to join the Abraham Accords, even if successful, would do nothing to bring the fractured country together; nor would it lead to any effort to rein in the militias and improve the standard of living of Libya’s poor, who undoubtedly wonder why they remain mired in poverty in an oil-rich country. Although US Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield has recognized that the two Libyan factions may be incapable of coming to an agreement on elections and floated the idea last month of a “technocratic caretaker government” to manage these elections, critics have noted that there is no guarantee that it would be any different than the GNU. Hence, Washington and other foreign capitals, including those in the EU, need to come up with more creative ideas and concrete proposals for compelling the two factions to come to an agreement on elections. Otherwise, more violence, poverty, and chaos are sadly in store for Libya.

The views expressed in this publication are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the position of Arab Center Washington DC, its staff, or its Board of Directors.

Featured image credit: BMEIA/Gruber; Wikimedia/Ofir Abe