Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Libya: Normalisation with Israel for Power

It is well known that accusations of normalisation taint all political parties in Libya, as they seek to use the issue to gain or maintain power.

Libya Normalisation with Israel
Libya’s Tripoli-based Prime Minister Abdulhamid Dbeibah gives a press conference in Tunisia’s capital Tunis on November 30, 2022. FETHI BELAID/ AFP.

Khaled Mahmoud

Libya may become the latest Arab country to normalise its relationship with Israel under American sponsorship.

In January 2023, the director of the CIA, William Burns, visited Tripoli to initiate a process aimed at bridging the gap between Tel Aviv and the interim national unity government led by Abdul Hamid Dabaiba.

Numerous calls and meetings between Libya and the United States, focussing on the possibility of normalisation with Israel through mediation by the United States, followed the unusual visit.

Despite ongoing American concerns regarding Russia’s military presence in eastern Libya in the form of the private military Wagner group, the topic of normalisation is still on the table.

In what appeared to be a precursor to the return of Libyan Jews to politics and the media, Dabaiba recently took advantage of a meeting in Tripoli, attended by some of his ministers, to announce the establishment of what he described as “cultural and artistic activities that include different religious sects.” At the meeting, Dabaiba pointed out that he intends to bring together all Libyans from different religions and ideologies.

Upon arriving in Ramallah from Jordan, Ali al-Abed, the labour minister in the Dabaiba government, became the first Libyan minister to pave the way for normalising relations with Israel using the Palestinian gateway.

Al-Abed made sure to take photos in the al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem wearing traditional Libyan attire. During the visit, he said that, at the invitation of his Palestinian counterpart, Dr Nasri Abu Jish, he participated in the Partners Meeting to Support the Implementation of the Palestinian National Employment Strategy.

Al-Abed also met with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah. During the meeting, Abbas stressed the importance of such visits, emphasising that they “contribute to supporting the resilience of our people and strengthening their relations with their Arab brothers.” He also underscored the depth of the fraternal relations between the two brotherly nations.

Brothers, Not Prisoners!

During their meeting in Ramallah, Mohammad Shtayyeh, the Palestinian prime minister, defended al-Abed’s visit to Palestine. Shtayyeh emphasised that the visit of what he called “our Arab brothers” to the “imprisoned Palestine” did not mean normalisation with the occupation. He considered that “visiting Palestine, especially Jerusalem, is akin to visiting a prisoner in detention until they are liberated from Israeli occupation.”

The Palestinian prime minister also highlighted the significance of this first-ever official visit by a Libyan minister to Palestine and stressed the importance of creating job opportunities for qualified Palestinian personnel in Libya.

Al-Abed discussed potential cooperation between Libya and Palestine in terms of labour with his Palestinian counterpart. The discussions dealt with an agreement signed by the two sides in 2022 to provide 10,000 job opportunities for Palestinians in Libya.

An Israeli Approval

Libya does not maintain relations with Israel. However, for a Libyan official to enter Palestinian territories, coordination with the Israeli government is necessary since Israel controls the crossings and gateways that connect Palestine to the outside world. Nevertheless, Palestinian authorities denied that the delegation entered Palestinian territories through Israeli approval.

The Palestinian Embassy in Libya stated that the delegation entered Palestinian territories via the Palestinian-controlled Karama crossing, which connects the Palestinian territories to Jordan. The embassy confirmed that the Libyan delegation was formally welcomed at the crossing.

The embassy’s statement emphasised that the entire visit was coordinated and arranged with the embassy, and all procedures were purely Palestinian, without the involvement of the Israeli authorities.

Libyan media, however, have argued that Israel approved the visit. They contextualised the visit as part of what they described as “the ongoing communication between the Dabaiba government and Israel.”

They reported that Israeli security authorities granted the Libyan minister a visa to visit Ramallah and that there was coordination between him, Najla Mangoush, the foreign minister of the Dabaiba government, and Israeli authorities to secure the delegation’s entry.

Prelude to Normalisation

Multiple parties accused the Libyan labour minister of normalising relations with Israel. For example, Libyan legal adviser Abdelsalam Ghoneim tweeted, “Liar! No one enters Palestinian territories except with the permission and approval of the enemy. Even Abbas cannot enter or leave Ramallah without Israeli permission.”

In response, Palestinian researcher Ibrahim Hamami questioned whether this visit was a prelude to normalisation. Hamami pointed out that such visits only take place with the approval and coordination of the occupation.

Recently, Mohamed Raied, the chairman of the Libyan Union of Chambers of Commerce, announced that he and a delegation of Libyan businessmen had entered the West Bank through the King Hussein Bridge crossing. Raied asserted that the Palestinian Authority facilitated the delegation’s entry.

Arab visitors to the Palestinian Authority obtain an entry visa granted by Israeli embassies in Egypt and Jordan or through a permit from Israel secured by the Palestinian Authority and given to its guests.

Forged Credentials

The selection of al-Abed for the mission of normalisation between the Dabaiba government and Israel was not ill-fitted. He is accused of forging his university credentials, and it is suggested that he made the visit in exchange for keeping his official government post.

The College of Technical Sciences in Sebha proved that al-Abed had forged his university degree, stating that he only holds an intermediate diploma in petroleum industries from the specialised centre in Zawiya and does not have a university degree.

Notably, despite the recent openness towards Israel, political factions have refrained from using it to criticise the Dabaiba government as part of the usual political rivalries.

Apart from the statement of condemnation issued by the High Council of State (HCS), led by Khaled al-Meshri, a prominent figure in the Libyan Muslim Brotherhood, other Libyan political and military factions chose not to criticise the visit. These factions include the Libyan National Army, headed by Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, the House of Representatives, and the parallel Government of National Stability, led by Fathi Bashagha.

The HCS emphasised in its statement that the visit of Libyan officials to the West Bank requires permission and approval from the Israeli authorities.

The HCS expressed concerns that visits of this nature could be utilised to assess Libyan reactions and as a precursor to “additional engagements with the Zionist occupation.” It called for a resolute position against what it referred to as “disgraceful actions.”

Other than also having some degree of involvement in the normalisation process, there is no explanation for the reluctance of different political parties to criticise the Dabaiba government’s actions. It is well known that accusations of normalisation taint all political parties in Libya, as they seek to use the issue to gain or maintain power.

For instance, Haftar and his son Saddam have chosen not to respond to Israeli reports of their secret visits to Israel. Supporters of Haftar have suggested that these accusations originate from Libyan Islamic extremist groups that aim to disrupt and tarnish his political reputation.

Rumours have also surfaced regarding Saif al-Islam, the second son of the late Colonel Muammar Gaddafi. The rumours suggest that he and Haftar hired an Israeli public relations company to manage their respective presidential election campaigns.

Aref Nayed, the former Libyan ambassador to the United Arab Emirates, leader of the Ihya Libya party, and a possible contender in the upcoming presidential election, was among those involved. Without explicitly expressing his own opposition to it, Nayed had suggested earlier that the question of normalising relations with Israel should be decided by the Libyan parliament.

In 2022, Abdul Hamid Dabaiba dismissed “baseless rumours” regarding his alleged meeting with Israeli officials in Jordan. In this context, Dabaiba said, “Such a meeting did not happen and will not happen in the future, and our stance towards the Palestinian cause is clear and unwavering.”

Flattery and Support

Reports suggest that Dabaiba secretly met with the head of Mossad in Amman. These reports indicate that Dabaiba requested Israel’s support in maintaining his position during the transitional period leading up to the election.

Furthermore, the reports revealed that Dabaiba seeks normalisation with Israel through the United Arab Emirates. They suggest that Dabaiba put together a special team to coordinate with Israel, led by his son-in-law, Libyan ambassador to Abu Dhabi, Sofian Salem al-Shibiani, who holds Canadian citizenship.

According to sources, al-Shibiani, accompanied by a group of Emiratis, met with Mossad representatives in Abu Dhabi to request US support for the Dabaiba administration to remain in office in return for establishing normalised ties with Tel Aviv and regional cooperation.

According to Israel Today, Libya looks to be the next Arab state to join the Abraham Accords, as “those contesting Libya’s upcoming presidential election… know that the country’s rehabilitation can be greatly accelerated by normalising relations with Israel.”

However, a poll conducted by the Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies in Doha shows that 96 per cent of Libyans reject normalisation and the acknowledgement of Israel. Libya ranked second out of the 14 countries surveyed regarding opposition to normalisation.

Israel insists on adding any “friendly” government in Libya to its list of normalisation agreements. In this context, Raphael Luzon, president of the Union of Libyan Jews, believes Libya could join the Abraham Accords and normalise relations with Israel, provided the Libyans first sort out their internal affairs.

Even before the fall of the Gaddafi regime, Israel had always shown an interest in the ongoing developments in Libya. It is worth noting that Israel openly opposed the appointment of Salam Fayyad, the former Palestinian prime minister, as the United Nations envoy to Libya.

The previous Government of National Accord, led by Fayez al-Sarraj, discussed the possibility of enlisting Libyan Jews to modernise its work. It suggested appointing Libyan Jewish figures as advisors in the government, the Central Bank and the Ministries of Economy and Interior.

One study warns of a possible internal explosion in Libya if officials in eastern or western Libya take any steps towards normalisation. It considers normalisation a security and military threat to Libya.

Others bet on the popular rejection of any form of normalisation with Israel. In the Libyan case, where the need for external financial and economic support is decreasing, partners can be diversified to guarantee that the Libyans do not fall for Israeli extortion.

user placeholder
written by
All Dima articles