JERUSALEM — The Israeli and Libyan foreign ministers met secretly in Italy last week, Israel’s Foreign Ministry announced Sunday, in what it said was the first-ever meeting between the country’s top diplomats.
The meeting between Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen and Najla Mangoush, foreign minister of the Tripoli-based government, marked a small breakthrough for Israel’s government, whose hard-line policies toward the Palestinians have led to a cooling of its burgeoning ties with the Arab world.
“I spoke with the foreign minister about the great potential for relations between the two countries,” Cohen said in a statement. He said the meeting was hosted by Italy’s foreign minister in Rome.
Cohen said he discussed the importance of preserving the heritage of Libya’s former Jewish community, including renovating synagogues and cemeteries. The Israeli Foreign Ministry said talks also touched on possible Israeli assistance for humanitarian issues, agriculture and water management.
A Libyan government official said normalization of relations between the countries was first discussed in a meeting between the Tripoli-based prime minister, Abdul Hamid Dbeibah, and CIA Director William Burns, who visited the Libyan capital in January.
According to the official, Burns proposed that Dbeibah’s government, which is recognized as Libya’s internationally backed government, join the group of four Arab countries that normalized relations with Israel under the U.S.-brokered Abraham Accords in 2020.
The Libyan premier gave an initial approval, but he was concerned about public backlash in a country known for its past support for the Palestinian cause, the official said. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the matter with the media.
The late Libyan leader, Moammar Gadhafi, was hostile to Israel and a staunch supporter of the Palestinians, including radical militant groups opposed to peace with Israel.
Libya was plunged into turmoil after a NATO-backed uprising in 2011 toppled Gadhafi, who was later killed, and left the country divided between rival governments in Benghazi in the east and Tripoli in the west. The United Nations has been struggling to shepherd the country toward new elections.
Dbeibah is close to Italy and the West.
Then-President Donald Trump brokered the Abraham Accords. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been eager to expand ties with the Arab world, but his government has come under heavy criticism due to its support for West Bank settlement construction and ongoing military raids on suspected militant strongholds in the occupied territory.