The United States is angry at Israel for revealing a meeting with the Libyan foreign minister

US President Joe Biden’s administration is reported to be furious with Jerusalem for revealing last week’s meeting between the foreign ministers of Israel and Libya.

Foreign Minister Eli Cohen on Sunday announced the meeting with his Libyan counterpart Najla al-Mangoush, sparking outrage in Libya over the unprecedented sit-in and a storm of criticism at home over the revelations.

Mangoush was expelled on Monday over his meeting with Cohen, amid mounting political repercussions in both Jerusalem and Tripoli over the decision by Israel’s top diplomat to reveal that the two ministers held a “historic” sit-in in Rome.

US officials have told Israel that the incident will deter other countries from embarking on the normalization process with Israel, multiple Hebrew media outlets reported Monday.

A US official also said it “killed” the channel of dialogue with Libya over recognition of Israel.

The US Embassy in Israel declined to comment on the report. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs also did not provide any response.

And the Israeli Channel 12 and Channel 13 reported that the US Acting Ambassador to Israel, Stephanie Hallett, told Cohen on Monday evening that his announcement of the unprecedented sit-in in Rome was a mistake that must be corrected. In response, Cohen said Israel would not discuss the meeting publicly.

The Walla news site reported that Biden was aware of the meeting and had encouraged Tripoli to attend, but he was under the impression that the meeting was and would remain confidential.

US officials were also not convinced by the State Department’s explanation that it issued its statement about the meeting in response to the leak, saying that Israel could still choose not to comment on the leak and to minimize damages.

Walla and Channel 12 news quoted officials in Cohen’s office claiming that Washington is not angry with Israel and has only asked Jerusalem to “calm down” the situation. Both outlets cited US officials who contradicted the claim, saying the White House was angry with Israel.

Channel 12 quoted an unnamed source in the Mossad spy agency as saying that Cohen’s behavior “has caused great damage to the relations that have been formed in recent years,” adding, “He burned the bridge. It is irreparable.”

Libyan Foreign Minister Naglaa al-Mangoush speaks during a press conference with her Turkish counterpart at the Turkish Foreign Ministry in Ankara, February 13, 2023. (Adem Altan/AFP)

After Cohen’s announcement of the meeting, which was met with outrage in Libya, Libyan Prime Minister Abdel Hamid Dabaiba suspended Mangoush from her role and said that an investigation committee would be set up to look into the meeting. Libya’s foreign ministry denied any official talks with Cohen had taken place, as sporadic protests broke out in Tripoli and other cities in western Libya.

On Monday, al-Dabaiba al-Manqousha was expelled, and a Libyan foreign ministry official confirmed that she had fled to Turkey, fearing for her safety.

After Mangoush was dismissed, Dabaiba visited the Palestinian embassy in Tripoli and vowed not to normalize relations with Israel, the Libya Observer news website reported.

During his visit, Dabaiba reiterated that he was unaware of Al-Mangoush’s meeting with Cohen, and confirmed that he had expelled her.

Al-Dabaiba said that he “reaffirms Libya’s refusal to normalize relations with the Zionist entity,” according to the report.

Dabaiba’s decision to dismiss Mangoush indicates that he was unaware of the meeting. However, two senior Libyan government officials told the Associated Press that the prime minister was aware of the conversations between his foreign minister and Israel’s top diplomat.

File: Libyan Prime Minister Abdelhamid Dbeiba in Rome, Monday, May 31, 2021 (AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia, Pool, File)

One of the officials said Dabaiba gave the go-ahead for the meeting last month when he was on a visit to Rome. He added that the Prime Minister’s office arranged the meeting in coordination with Mangoush.

The second official said that the Mangoush-Cohen meeting lasted about two hours, and Mangoush briefed the Prime Minister on the matter immediately after her return to Tripoli. The official said the meeting was related to efforts brokered by the United States to get Libya to join a series of Arab countries establishing diplomatic relations with Israel.

The official said normalizing relations between Libya and Israel was first discussed in a meeting between Dabaiba and CIA Director William Burns, who visited the Libyan capital in January.

The official said the Libyan prime minister gave his initial approval to join the US-brokered Abraham Accords, but expressed concern about public backlash in a country known for its support of the Palestinian cause.

The two officials spoke on condition of anonymity for their safety.

Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, center, stands with Libyan President Mohamed al-Munfi, left, and Libyan Prime Minister Abdelhamid Dbeiba, as they arrive for an international conference on migration in Rome, July 23. 2023. (AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia)

Earlier Monday, the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem issued its first official reaction after Cohen came under widespread criticism for officially publishing his interview with Mangoush, apparently attempting to deflect responsibility for his announcement by claiming he made it only after a “leaking.” Details about the meeting that neither his office nor the ministry stood behind.

“The foreign minister and the foreign ministry are committed to expanding Israel’s foreign relations… The leak about the meeting with the Libyan foreign minister did not come from the foreign ministry or the foreign minister’s office,” the ministry said in a statement.

Earlier, an Israeli diplomat told The Times of Israel that Jerusalem disclosed the meeting several days earlier than scheduled because it had already been leaked to the media.

Hebrew media quoted senior government officials as saying that Cohen had caused severe damage to Israel’s foreign relations, and warned that Arab leaders would be deterred from establishing stricter relations.

Diplomatic sources in Jerusalem said the truth of the meeting was always slated to be made public, but the announcement was made because journalists were asking about it. A source in the Foreign Ministry told Channel 12 that the ministry contacted Mangoush’s office to inform them of the impending announcement.

Hebrew media quoted senior government officials as saying that Cohen had caused severe damage to Israel’s foreign relations, and warned that Arab leaders would be deterred from establishing stricter relations.

Opposition leader Yair Lapid said: “Countries look at the irresponsible leak this morning of the foreign ministers of Israel and Libya and ask themselves: Is this a country with which foreign relations can be managed? Is it a country that can be trusted?”

Lapid added, “The incident that occurred with the Libyan foreign minister was unprofessional, irresponsible, and a gross failure of judgment.” “This is a morning of national infamy and putting lives on the line for a headline.”

Labor leader Merav Michaeli said Cohen “needs to resign,” adding: “The damage he has done is unprecedented. One reckless publication ruined the life of the Libyan minister who had to flee to Turkey and caused international damage to Israel.

“No serious, secretive international player would now want to meet a foreign minister whose sole purpose is political capital and Twitter likes,” she added.

In off-script remarks during a ceremony for National Service Volunteers Thursday, Cohen told the audience he was excited about Israel exploring ties with another Muslim country. He did not mention Libya by name, but his aides sought to cut him short nonetheless.

In its statement Sunday, the Foreign Ministry said Cohen and Mangoush spoke in Italy last week, in the first-ever formal meeting between the two countries’ senior diplomats, to discuss the possibility of cooperation and the preservation of Jewish heritage sites in Libya. The ministry said the meeting also discussed Israeli humanitarian aid, assistance in agriculture, water management and other issues.

Cohen described the meeting as “historic” and a “first step” in establishing relations between the two countries.

Foreign Minister Eli Cohen attends an event at the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem, May 17, 2023. (Oren Ben Hakoon/Flash90)

But in a quick turn of events that seemed to crush the notion of meaningful progress in relations between the two countries as Cohen had hinted, the Libyan government denied that the meeting had been formalized in advance and sought to downplay its significance.

The Libyan Foreign Ministry said in a statement that what happened in Rome was an informal and unannounced meeting, during a meeting with the Italian Foreign Minister, and it did not include any discussions, agreements or consultations.

Rather, she said, “The minister affirmed Libya’s constants regarding the Palestinian issue clearly and unequivocally.”

And she stressed that she “categorically denies the reported exploitation by the Hebrew and international press and its attempt to imbue the incident with the character of meetings, talks, or even arranging or merely thinking of holding such meetings.”

And it announced its “total and absolute rejection of normalization with the Zionist entity,” and affirmed its “full commitment to the national constants regarding the issues of the Arab and Islamic nations, foremost of which is the Palestinian cause,” while adhering to its position. Jerusalem is the “eternal capital of Palestine”.

Libya descended into chaos after a NATO-backed uprising toppled and killed dictator Muammar Gaddafi in 2011. The country has been divided in the ensuing chaos, with rival administrations in the east and west backed by rogue militias and foreign governments.

Mangoush represents the UN-recognized government based in Tripoli.

While there were no relations between Israel and Libya at all, there have long been reports of contacts between Gaddafi’s son Saif al-Islam and Israeli officials. The mercurial Gaddafi himself appears to have reached out to Israel on a number of occasions, including to advance his proposal for a unified Israeli-Palestinian state, called Isratine.

In 2021, the son of Libyan warlord Khalifa Haftar reportedly visited Israel for a secret meeting with Israeli officials in which he offered to establish diplomatic relations between the two countries in return for Israeli support.

It is illegal to normalize relations with Israel under the 1957 law in Libya.

Agencies contributed to this report.

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