The leader of Libya’s government said Sunday that he had suspended his foreign minister after her Israeli counterpart announced he had held talks with her last week in Rome.
Najla al-Mangoush has been “temporarily suspended” and will be subject to an “administrative investigation” by a commission chaired by the justice minister, Prime Minister Abdulhamid Dbeibah said on Sunday evening in an official decision posted on Facebook.
Although the meeting was termed as a “chance and unofficial encounter” by the Libyan foreign ministry, news of it had already sparked demonstrations in the streets of many Libyan cities.
The political dispute started on Sunday after Israel’s foreign ministry claimed that the foreign ministers of the two nations had met the week prior.
According to the statement, Mangoush, the foreign minister for Libya in the Tripoli-based government, and Israeli colleague Eli Cohen spoke at a meeting in Rome that was hosted by Italian counterpart Antonio Tajani.
The Israeli statement described it as the first such diplomatic initiative between the two countries.
In the statement from the Israel’s foreign ministry, Cohen said, “I spoke with the foreign minister about the great potential for the two countries from their relations.”
But the Libyan foreign ministry said on Sunday evening that Mangoush had “refused to meet with any party” representing Israel.
The ministry said this in a statement. “What happened in Rome was a chance and unofficial encounter, during a meeting with his Italian counterpart, which did not involve any discussion, agreement or consultation,”
The statement said that the minister had reaffirmed Libya’s stance on the Palestinian cause “in a clear and unambiguous manner.”
In addition to causing protests in various Libyan cities, news of the meeting also prompted the country’s Presidential Council to write a letter asking for clarification.
The Libyan foreign ministry accused Israel of attempting to “present this incident” as a “meeting or talks”.
In the Israel foreign ministry statement, Cohen was quoted as saying that the two discussed “the importance of preserving the heritage of Libyan Jews, which includes renovating synagogues and Jewish cemeteries in the country”.
“Libya’s size and strategic location offer a huge opportunity for the State of Israel,” he added.
There was no immediate confirmation of the meeting from Rome.
Earlier on Sunday evening, Libya’s Presidential Council requested “clarifications” from the government. The Presidential Council, which has some executive powers and sprang from the UN-backed political process, includes three members representing the three Libyan provinces.
This development “does not reflect the foreign policy of the Libyan state, does not represent the Libyan national constants, and is considered a violation of Libyan laws which criminalise normalisation with the “Zionist entity,” according to the letter, which was sent to the Libyan government.”
“Apply the law if the meeting took place,” it pleaded with the head of state.
In a show of defiance against Israel’s normalization, protests broke out on Tripoli’s streets and in its suburbs Sunday night. Youths burned tires, blocked highways, waved the Palestinian flag, and participated in the demonstrations in other places.
Libya has a strong Jewish heritage, much like several other North African nations.
However, thousands of Jews were driven out of Libya and several synagogues were demolished during the decades that the former Libyan leader Moamer Kadhafi ruled the country. Kadhafi was a fervent supporter of the Palestinian cause.
Kadhafi was overthrown and killed in 2011 by a NATO-backed uprising that plunged the country into more than a decade of chaos and lawlessness.
Politically, the nation is divided between two opposing governments: one in the east, supported by military strongman Khalifa Haftar, and one in the west, led by Tripoli.
As a result of US-backed agreements known as the Abraham Accords, Israel has recently normalised relations with various Arab nations.
However, due to the West Bank’s escalating violence and its support for Jewish settlement growth in the occupied region, Arab states have harshly criticised Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s hardline government.