September 09, 2023
A clandestine meeting between the foreign ministers of Libya and Israel, Najla Al-Mangoush and Eli Cohen, respectively, opened a Pandora’s box, revealing yet again the convoluted maze that is Washington’s Middle East policy. The covert encounter, held in Rome, was intended to quietly keep things moving in the still turbulent waters of Arab-Israeli normalization. What was intended as a signal of a formal Libya-Israel engagement, dispensing with historic antagonism, has since emerged as an embarrassing diplomatic misstep of epic proportions, fueling protests within Libya and unsettling its precarious balance of power.
The weakening of Libyan interim Prime Minister Abdul Hamid Dbeibah and the emboldening of militias, particularly those from the city of Zawiya, have intensified the country’s domestic tensions. It could potentially ignite a political firestorm in the North African country, while casting an even harsher spotlight on Israel, and dealing a severe blow to US strategic ambitions for the region.
The debacle underscores the inherent risks and complexities associated with Washington’s grand vision of anchoring Israel as the linchpin of a revised approach to the Middle East and North Africa that, for all the bluster and pomp, remains a work in progress. It also exposes the flawed assumptions underpinning this strategy, particularly in a country as politically fragmented and volatile as Libya.
The fallout from the leaked meeting has not just rattled the already unstable power dynamics of Libya. The unforced error and the inevitable crisis that came afterward occurred amid a cauldron of rival militias, shifting alliances, and an uneasy balance of power. As a result, it will likely worsen a longstanding quagmire that the global community has failed to deal with for more than a decade.
This debacle serves as a stark reminder that the art of diplomacy demands more than just diplomats
It has also compromised Washington’s role in addressing the myriad intractable challenges that plague the North African country. These range from feuding political camps, governance issues, and security threats to broader regional and geopolitical dynamics. Besides, persistent instability in Libya is also impeding progress on Maghreb integration, cross-border cooperation, and collaboration on critical issues such as climate change, migration, security and trade.
Adding an extra layer of complexity is the unwelcome presence of the Wagner mercenary group, foreign fighters sustaining the dizzying array of external interests that have also sponsored the emergence of sophisticated hybrid actors committed to disrupting Libya’s democratization, stability and unification.
Clearly, the reverberations of this diplomatic blunder extend far beyond the borders of Libya, threatening to undermine Washington’s priorities in the region, while simultaneously exposing how misguided its approach is to the broader Arab region. As the dust settles on this farrago, it demands an urgent introspection on the larger implications of this episode, even as its strange cast of characters are still workshopping how to deal with the consequences of a secretive meeting gone public.
The botched meeting, which reportedly discussed preserving the heritage of Libya’s former Jewish community and potential Israeli assistance for humanitarian issues, was an embarrassing unraveling of what should have been a confidential diplomatic process. This debacle serves as a stark reminder that the art of diplomacy demands more than just diplomats — it requires a nuanced understanding of regional complexities, sensitivity to public sentiment, and a commitment to prioritizing the welfare of the nation involved over self-centered foreign policy objectives.
The US, a major actor in the Libyan affair, finds itself in the hot seat, having displayed limited engagement and intermittent concern for Libya’s near-term stability. This blinkered approach, however, is reflective of a larger global trend where nations exploit Libya’s predicament to advance their short-term interests. As the US seeks to further its diplomatic reach across the Arab world, the wind blowing from Libya presents a chilling defiance and a stark wake-up call.
Ultimately, the US must demonstrate that its commitment to Libya extends beyond strategic interests
This development undermines America’s Libya policy, dramatically revealing the disconnect between diplomacy enacted in palatial conference rooms and the deep-seated sentiments of the populace. Washington’s role faces the specter of an unassailable gap in trust and confidence, raising questions about the viability of its influence in Libya — whatever is left of it.
Yet, contrary to fatalist narratives, this setback could catalyze a much-needed recalibration of US engagement with Libya. To win back the confidence of the Libyan populace, a paradigm shift is needed — one that sees the US and other global stakeholders subvert this injurious dynamic and prioritize collaborative endeavors aimed at restoring stability, rebuilding trust, and fostering grassroots empowerment in Libya. The Libya-Israel diplomatic misstep serves as a timely cautionary tale, reminding us that effective diplomacy requires more than just “good” intentions — it demands a commitment to genuine engagement and a focus on the long-term stability of the nations involved. It also underlines that past Israeli normalization agreements with other Arab countries are still simply agreements with governments not the people of these counties.
To bridge the trust deficit, prioritizing direct dialogue with the Libyan populace, deepening understanding of their historical perspectives and present-day complexities, may foster mutual understanding. Moreover, revisiting the parameters of the Abraham Accords, with a humane recognition of the Palestinian cause, would signal an earnest attempt to address at least a part of the root of the dissent. Furthermore, expanding the spectrum of engagement beyond geopolitics to areas such as cultural diplomacy, education, trade, and infrastructural investment could also reignite the US-Libya relationship.
Ultimately, the US must demonstrate that its commitment to Libya extends beyond strategic interests, if it wishes to regain trust and energize its role in Libya, as well as within the pivotal Maghreb sub-region. This also applies to the other major actors who must embody commitment toward collective efforts, with the objective of restoring stability, reinstating trust, and promoting local empowerment — not just in Libya. Other vulnerable Arab states with equally out-of-touch political elites might cling to normalization or other similar ambitious endeavors to cultivate diplomatic capital as long as they toe the lines drawn either in Washington or Brussels.
The Libya-Israel diplomatic fumble, therefore, also provides the global community with a warning writ large. It is time to cease exploiting fragile states and focus on an honest assessment of the state of affairs — an introspection devoid of hidden agendas. Such a task demands nothing less than altering the current trajectory and charting a new path; one that promises hope over despair and long-term stability over fleeting alliances.
• Hafed Al-Ghwell is a senior fellow and executive director of the North Africa Initiative at the Foreign Policy Institute of the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, DC, and the former adviser to the dean of the board of executive directors of the World Bank Group. Twitter: @HafedAlGhwell
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