The office of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu notified the government on 29 August that his office must approve all secret and open diplomatic meetings in advance. The decision was made following the diplomatic crisis brought on by the recent meeting between the Libyan and Israeli foreign ministers in Rome.
There are more questions than answers regarding the scope of the crisis, Libya’s place in the context of Israeli aspirations in the area, and the fallout of this crisis, in response to which al-Dbeibeh government declared that it would ban normalization with Israel.
I. Dimensions of the Crisis
Leaks to Israeli newspapers published in Hebrew, English, and Arabic revealed a covert meeting between the Israeli foreign minister, Eli Cohen, and his Libyan counterpart in the Dbeibeh government, Najla el-Mangoush, under Italian auspices. This led to massive public outcry among Libyans, prompting al-Dbeibeh to dismiss the minister in question, launch an open investigation, and ban normalization with Israel.
Several political and strategic factors come into play. These are:
1. Undermining the Role of the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs
Netanyahu actively seeks to undermine the position of the Israeli Foreign Ministry’s Eli Cohen, leaving the formulation of Israeli foreign policy to the Prime Minister’s Office, the Israeli Security Agency (ISA) under Tzachi Hanegbi, the Ministry of Strategic Affairs under Ron Dermer, and other security agencies like the Mossad.
This irritates Eli Cohen, whose policies are not very compatible with the general foreign policy of the Israeli government, causing him to tweet out of tune on occasion.
This was demonstrated in the Sudan case when Eli Cohen met with Abdel-Fattah al-Burhan, the head of the Transitional Sovereignty Council, while the Mossad was developing covert ties with Hemedti, the commander of the Rapid Support Forces. This is possibly one of the factors contributing to Sudan’s dissatisfaction with the quick steps taken to normalize relations with Israel.
This pattern was also observed in Israeli policy toward Africa, wherein Eli Cohen secretly meets with African leaders and then rushes to announce that he has been in contact with Muslim leaders in Africa, in an effort to win favor with the prime minister. It is because of this inconsistency that African countries typically respond negatively to pleas for normalization or a principled understanding with Israel.
Thus, it appears that Eli Cohen hastily set up covert communications through Rome in order to meet with the Dbeibeh government by having a conversation with the Libyan Foreign Minister.
2. Another Route to Normalization
Even though the United States is slowing down in resuming the Abrahamic normalization path with Saudi Arabia, which has set specific conditions for agreeing to normalize relations with Israel, the Netanyahu administration does not want to wait too long to achieve a normalization agreement with a new Arab country.
Additionally, Saudi Arabia’s potential acceptance into BRICS could open up a new political, economic, and security platform for closer communication with Iran (another potential new BRICS member). This may leave less room for Israeli movement in the region, due to the Saudi-Iranian agreement on the importance of resolving the Palestinian cause through a political settlement.
As a result, it is likely that Israel will try to establish diplomatic ties with yet another Arab country. This has been seized upon by the media and labor unions in Algeria, which anticipate the possibility of improved ties between Israel and either Tunisia or Mauritania.
II- Why Libya?
First, Israel considers Libya a key player in the eastern Mediterranean region’s equations, particularly on the economic level in relation to the energy file. Following the announcement of the EastMed gas pipeline project’s launch by Israel, Cyprus, Greece, and the United States, Turkey moved swiftly to try to thwart any exclusionary projects against it. It capitalized on the political unrest in Libya to sign two agreements, i.e., the Maritime Boundary Treaty and a military cooperation pact, both of which have long-term strategic significance for the Tripoli government in the West (November 2019). These agreements enabled Istanbul to consolidate its military presence in Libya, develop gas and oil reserves in the economic waters, and increase its influence in Africa and Europe by establishing a foothold in the volatile Libyan arena.
This development was a significant factor in the United States’ decision to stop funding the EastMed project, which ultimately resulted in the project’s cancellation. As a result, tensions between Israel and Turkey exacerbated. Erdogan did, however, hint at the possibility of future examination of the export of natural gas from the Leviathan gas field to Ankara and the promotion of energy cooperation between the two countries, which is a core element in Turkey’s foreign policy assessment of Israel.
As a result, in recent years, the abundant energy resources of the eastern Mediterranean have become a source of conflict and cooperation among various regional and international powers. This has had a negative impact on Libya, given the competing goals of various parties to shape and gain support from the next Libyan government. The shift in Turkish regional politics presents an opportunity to ease tensions in the eastern Mediterranean, improve economic and security cooperation in the energy sector among all players, including Israel, and maintain Libyan stability as a prerequisite for realizing this potential.
Second, Israel is attempting to find common ground with Italy for a number of reasons, the most significant of which is that Italy is one of the European nations that opposes Germany’s European Sky Shield Initiative (ESSI), a project to create a European air defense system based on three systems, including the Israeli long-range Arrow-3 missile system. If Italy approves of the German project, it will significantly increase Israeli defense exports and have a positive impact on the financial support given to the Israeli security services, particularly the Israeli army.
Therefore, Israel keeps an eye on Italy’s top priorities, the most important of which is the illegal immigration file. Given that Libya is one of the countries that sends undocumented immigrants to Italy, this presented Israel with a significant opportunity to strengthen ties with both Italy and al-Dbeibeh governments.
Another significant factor is that Italian intelligence tasked with tracking the whereabouts of illegal immigrants traveling by sea have been relying on Israeli technology to track ships and have found it useful even when the ships’ radios are turned off, according to security and political reports concerning the Italian file on illegal immigration.
In a nutshell, Israel views Libya as a significant player in the eastern Mediterranean, a region in which nonrenewable energy remains a thriving industry and which serves as major route for the transport of energy supplies to EuropeIn addition, illegal immigration is a sore point between Libya and Italy, and Israel is hoping to explore dynamics for a solution that assists Italy, including through technological means, in an effort to foster better ties between Rome and Tel Aviv. This explains Rome’s assistance in arranging the meeting between the Libyan and Israeli foreign ministers, which was made public through media leaks.