CAIRO: The foreign minister of Libya has been suspended and has fled the nation, a development that unfolded a day after Israel disclosed that its top diplomat had held talks with her last week.

The revelation led to scattered street protests within the tumultuous North African country. Prime Minister Abdul Hamid Dbeibah, who leads one of Libya’s rival governments, announced the suspension of Foreign Minister Najla Mangoush and initiated an investigation into the meeting.

The event marked the first-ever encounter between high-ranking diplomats from Libya and Israel. While Dbeibah did not specify the grounds for the investigation, it’s important to note that Libya, a country historically hostile to Israel, deems the normalization of ties illegal under a 1957 law.

Mangoush reportedly fled to Turkey following Israel’s announcement of the meeting, as stated by an official from the Libyan Foreign Ministry. The meeting between Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen and Mangoush took place in Rome, signifying a minor breakthrough for Israel’s government, which has seen its relations with Arab nations cool due to its rigid policies towards the Palestinians. Discussions between Cohen and Mangoush encompassed various topics, including the preservation of Libya’s former Jewish community’s heritage, renovating synagogues and cemeteries. The dialogue also touched upon potential Israeli support for humanitarian endeavors, agriculture, and water management.

The Libyan Foreign Ministry downplayed the meeting, characterizing it as “unprepared and unofficial,” having occurred within the context of a broader meeting with Italy’s foreign minister. The ministry asserted that no substantive talks, agreements, or consultations transpired between Mangoush and Cohen. Dbeibah’s decision to suspend Mangoush suggests that he may not have been aware of the meeting, yet two senior Libyan government officials anonymously conveyed to The Associated Press that the prime minister was indeed informed about the talks. Allegedly, Dbeibah approved the meeting during a visit to Rome the previous month, coordinated with Mangoush’s involvement. The second official stated that the meeting lasted around two hours, after which Mangoush briefed the prime minister directly upon her return to the capital, Tripoli. This official also noted that the meeting marked the culmination of US-brokered efforts to bring Libya into the fold of Arab countries normalizing relations with Israel.

Libya’s potential rapprochement with Israel was initially discussed in a meeting between Dbeibah and CIA Director William Burns during the latter’s visit to the Libyan capital in January. Despite the initial approval, Dbeibah was apprehensive about potential public backlash due to Libya’s historical support for the Palestinian cause. Notably, Mangoush, taken aback by the Israeli announcement, promptly left the Libyan capital via a private flight to Istanbul. Jalel Harchaoui, an expert on Libya at the Royal United Services Institute for Defense and Security Studies, observed that Dbeibah’s suspension of Mangoush was likely aimed at quelling public dissatisfaction.

The Libyan prime minister’s government has faced mounting international pressure over the nation’s political impasse. In response, UN spokesperson Stephane Dujarric expressed concern for Mangoush’s safety and refrained from commenting on the suspension, considering it an internal matter. Israel’s Foreign Ministry, which initially celebrated the “historic” meeting, later disclaimed responsibility for “leaking” the news. An Israeli official noted that the ministry was compelled to disclose the meeting following a planned report by an Israeli news site. Both nations had agreed to announce the meeting at an unspecified time.

Since the NATO-backed uprising that ousted Muammar Qaddafi in 2011, Libya has experienced instability, with divisions between the Western-backed government in Tripoli and a competing administration in the east. Israel’s meeting with Libya’s foreign minister has triggered protests in various Libyan towns and cities, with demonstrators expressing their discontent.

The meeting’s fallout has also prompted political figures to call for government changes in Libya. Yair Lapid, a former Israeli foreign minister and prime minister, criticized the public announcement of the meeting, raising questions about Israel’s diplomatic approach.

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