Israel's attempts to sway Libya towards normalisation
As Libya’s democratic future hangs in the balance following the postponement of December 2021 elections, and the country reels from over a decade of instability and domestic rivalries, Israel has apparently courted Libyan political circles with the aim of normalisation with Tripoli.
On 12 January, rumours circulated that Libya’s interim Prime Minister Abdul Hamid Dbeibah met with the chief of Mossad in Amman, Jordan, to discuss future relations between Tripoli and Tel Aviv and the prospects of normalisation between the two countries.
It followed a report by the Saudi-run al-Arabiya al-Hadath TV, which was also reported later by Israeli outlets Haaretz and The Jerusalem Post.
Dbeibah slammed these allegations and affirmed Tripoli’s firm support for the Palestinian cause. However, these recent claims follow previous reports of Libyan and Israeli relations taking a new path, with the former indicating receptiveness towards normalisation with Tel Aviv.
"Israel is really only just putting its feelers out to see what is within the realm of the possible in Libya"
In November, the Israeli outlet Maariv reported that at the Paris Conference that month, Libyan officials had pondered the prospect of ties with Israel.
Dbeibah himself reportedly told a Maariv correspondent in Paris that the decision on the question of establishing relations with Israel should be made by the Libyan people, after democratic elections in the country.
According to diplomatic sources, Israeli aid has so far been provided to Haftar in coordination with Egypt, whose president Abdel Fattah al-Sisi also participated in the Paris summit, the outlet added.
“Israel is really only just putting its feelers out to see what is within the realm of the possible in Libya,” Dr Andreas Krieg, associate professor at the School of Security at King's College, London, told The New Arab.
“A backchannel with political leaders and elites in Libya would be a great victory already. It would allow to influence Libyan decisions on the East Med and potentially develop synergies there.”
However, Krieg added that any future Libyan government would be reticent to take the risk of normalisation with Israel, given that Libyans are largely unified in support of the Palestinian cause.
Any attempt to normalise relations with Israel faces a backlash from the public, which would explain Dbeibah’s eagerness to deny rumours of a meeting with the Mossad chief, as he would need to win over the public in his democratic bid. Such an issue would cause problems for any other Libyan figure pursuing a democratic campaign.
“For the time being, Israel’s engagement is disruptive in Libya rather than constructive, as there is no real tangible roadmap yet on where Libya is going,” added Dr Krieg.
Indicating Israel’s renewed interest in supporting Libyan National Army (LNA) leader General Khalifa Haftar, a plane belonging to Haftar reportedly landed in Tel Aviv earlier in January for the second time in less than three months.
While it was not clear who was aboard the plane, military correspondent for Israeli Broadcasting Corporation Itay Blumenthal said that Haftar’s private jet landed at Ben Gurion Airport following a diplomatic stop in Cyprus, while on its way to Dubai.
During Haftar’s military campaign to take the capital of Tripoli, reports indicated Israel’s covert alignment with Haftar, in coordination with the UAE and Egypt.
In 2020, The New Arab reported that Israeli-made air defence systems which the UAE had supplied were delivered to pro-Haftar forces during his military campaign to take the capital. This aimed to counter Turkish drones, as Ankara supported the Government of National Accord (GNA), the then-international recognised Tripoli administration.
In November 2021, one of Khalifa Haftar’s sons Saddam Haftar landed at Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv in a French-made Dassault Falcon jet, which stopped there on its way from Dubai to Libya.
During the visit, Saddam Haftar carried a request from his father for Israel’s military and diplomatic assistance. In return was an alleged offer for normalisation between Israel and Libya.
"For the time being, Israel's engagement is disruptive in Libya rather than constructive, as there is no real tangible roadmap yet on where Libya is going"
Additionally, Israel Hayom reported in October 2021 that Saddam had signed a contract with a major Israeli PR firm for supporting his father’s presidential bid. The firm also registered a new company in the UAE to pursue the PR campaign for Haftar.
“Israel has been on track with supporting the UAE’s anti-authoritarian, anti-Islamist actors in the country,” explained Dr Krieg. “Israel would prefer a secular authoritarian in power in Libya over a democratic Islamist – the same is true for the UAE.”
“The Abraham Accords could be a vehicle to have Libya join should a Libyan government choose to do so,” he added.
Despite setbacks with Haftar’s bid for power, Israel is evidently prepared to be flexible enough to build relations within any new Libyan government.
After all, boosting ties with Tripoli can also guarantee Tel Aviv’s security in the Eastern Mediterranean, where Israel aims to become a major energy exporter.
Two of the main factors of Israel’s exporting goals through the Eastern Mediterranean are the Leviathan gas field, discovered in 2010, and the Tamar gas field, discovered in 2009, both of which are within Israel’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ).
Israel also expects to complete its EastMed pipeline by 2025, which would export Israel and Cyprus’ gas to Greece then onto Europe.
Competition with Turkey’s own ambitions in the Eastern Mediterranean, where Ankara’s past agreements with Tripoli could cause obstacles, could explain Tel Aviv’s desires to strengthen relations with Libyan actors, which would strengthen Israel’s economic ambitions in the Eastern Mediterranean.
“Israel’s interests in Libya are tied to its maritime and energy interests in the Eastern Mediterranean,” said Dr Krieg.
“With Egypt as a reliable partner on energy and Eastern Mediterranean demarcations, there is a fear that a new Libyan government might severely disrupt the consensus Israel and Egypt have built. Especially if a new Libyan government was too closely allied to Turkey, Israel would see this as a strategic threat to its interests in the region.”
Indeed, Israel’s objectives there have pushed it into closer talks with Egypt and Jordan. There is also the impact of the Abraham Accords. Both the UAE and Israel have tried to collaborate further and strengthen their ties and bring other countries into their regional fold, following their normalisation agreement in September 2020.
This has already played out in different regional scenarios, such as Sudan, where both countries strengthened ties with the military government prior to Tel Aviv’s normalisation with Khartoum.
Some Libyan actors may be receptive to the idea of ties with Israel, especially if it could help bolster ties with the West and their own campaigns. Yet given Israel’s desires to support disruptive actors like Haftar, its role in the conflict could prove unhelpful for Libya’s hopes for ensuring a smooth democratic transition.
Jonathan Fenton-Harvey is a journalist and researcher who focuses on conflict, geopolitics, and humanitarian issues in the Middle East and North Africa
Follow him on Twitter: @jfentonharvey