- By Alex Finley and Rafi Berg
- BBC News
Libya’s prime minister has suspended his Israeli foreign minister after an informal meeting.
Libya – a strong supporter of the Palestinian cause – does not recognize Israel, and the meeting has sparked protests in the majority Arab country.
Israeli FM Eli Cohen said the meeting with Najla al-Mangoosh was a historic first step in establishing ties.
Israel is trying to build closer ties with Arab and Muslim-majority countries that it does not officially recognize.
However, Libya’s Presidential Council, which represents its three provinces, said normalizing ties with Israel was illegal.
The Speaker’s Office in Parliament has charged Ms Mangoush with high treason, and Prime Minister Abdul Hamid Dibaba has sent her to trial.
Israel’s announcement of the talks came as a surprise, especially when it is not known to love Libya, an archenemy and victor of the Palestinian struggle under former Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi. During his reign, thousands of Jews were expelled from Libya and many synagogues were destroyed.
The statement is also unusual in its level of detail, perhaps intended to offset an expected denial from the Libyan side – and by identifying and crediting Italian Foreign Minister Antonio Tajani for hosting the meeting in Rome.
On Monday, an unnamed Israeli official told Reuters news agency that the meeting was agreed in advance at a “high level” in Libya and lasted more than an hour.
In his statement on Sunday, Mr Cohen said he met Ms Mangoosh during a summit in Rome last week and they discussed the “great potential for relations” between Israel and Libya.
They spoke about Israeli assistance in humanitarian issues, agriculture, water management and the importance of preserving Jewish heritage in Libya, including renovating synagogues and cemeteries.
However, Libya’s foreign ministry said Ms Mangoush had rejected the meeting with Israel’s delegation and what took place was “an unprepared, casual meeting during a meeting at Italy’s foreign ministry”.
A statement said the conversation did not include “any discussions, agreements or consultations” and that the ministry “renews its complete and utter rejection of normalcy” with Israel.
News of the meeting sparked protests in the capital Tripoli and other cities. Roads were blocked, tires were burned and demonstrators waved the Palestinian flag, although the protests appeared relatively small.
Libya has been in turmoil for years, with the country divided between the interim, internationally recognized government in Tripoli and a rival in the east.
Any deal between Israel and Libya would be complicated by political divisions that have existed since the overthrow of Gaddafi 12 years ago.
General Khalifa Haftar of the Libyan National Army (LNA) runs a rival government in the east coast city of Tobruk.
In recent years, Israel has pursued formal relations with Arab League states and non-formal relations with it – from moderate states to historic enemies.
As of 2020, the United Arab Emirates has signed US-brokered agreements known as the Abraham Accords that normalize relations with Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco. The accords have been met with outrage by Palestinians, who accuse the Arab signatories of betrayal.
On Sunday evening, Libya’s Presidential Council demanded “clarification” from the government about what happened. The Presidential Council carries out the functions of the head of state and is responsible for the country’s military.
The meeting between the two foreign ministers “does not reflect the foreign policy of the Libyan government, does not represent Libyan national constants and is considered a violation of Libyan laws that criminalize normalization with the ‘Zionist establishment’,” the organization’s letter said. .
It asked Mr Dbeibah to “implement the law if the rally takes place”.