Israeli FM Eli Cohen faces heat for diplomatic blunders

Eli Cohen is facing Netanyahu’s public wrath after publicizing sensitive talks with Libya

Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen made the biggest international waves of his career last week, when he issued a public statement about his meeting with his Libyan counterpart Najla Mangoush, a highly unusual move when it comes to secret contacts between Israel and Arab states.

The reaction in Tripoli came almost instantly: rioting, a denial from Libyan Prime Minister Abdul Hamid Dbeibeh that he knew about the meeting and Mangoush’s sacking. The Libyan foreign minister then fled her country in the face of death threats, first to Turkey and then to London.

Cohen has faced criticism for being dangerously indiscreet and jeopardizing Israel’s fragile relations with the Arab world.

Following the publicization of the meeting, Israeli Opposition Leader Yair Lapid suggested that the incident raised questions among Arab leaders, who are looking at the state of affairs in Libya and “asking themselves: is this a country with which we can conduct foreign relations? Is this a country you can trust?… The incident with the Libyan foreign minister is amateurish, irresponsible, and a serious failure of judgment. This is a morning of national disgrace and risking human life for a headline.”

One Arab diplomat — who agreed with Lapid’s assessment — told Jewish Insider this week that Mangoush’s life had been ruined and speculated that the incident could hurt the prospects of more countries establishing diplomatic ties with Israel —- though he did not think it would impact Saudi normalization talks. 

Cohen, 50, was a Likud activist from Holon, a suburb south of Tel Aviv, with a background in accounting and finance. He had a good relationship with then-Communications Minister Moshe Kahlon, who ended up breaking off from Likud, forming his own Kulanu party focused on the economy, and plucking Cohen from obscurity into the Knesset in 2015. 

Cohen returned to Likud when much of Kulanu was absorbed back into the party, and he is viewed as a Likud stalwart and authentic representative of its base of Mizrahi voters from humble backgrounds. He manages to toe the line of lashing out at “political rivals who never had any significant achievements” — like he did in response to the Libya backlash — while keeping clear of some of the uglier ad hominem attacks coming from his party in recent years. 

In less than a decade in national politics, Cohen led the Economy and Industry Ministry and then the Intelligence Ministry, where he was instrumental in deepening Israel-Sudan relations, before becoming foreign minister. 

Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen (center) meets with his Bahraini counterpart Abdullatif bin Rashid Al Zayani (not seen), after taking part in the official opening ceremony for Tel Aviv’s embassy in the capital Manama, Bahrain on September 4, 2023. (Photo by Israeli Foreign Ministry/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Perhaps his biggest political achievement, however, is being the third most popular man in Likud, after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Justice Minister Yariv Levin, in last year’s party primary. His popularity was what got him the Foreign Ministry post, but it wasn’t enough for him to not have to share it with powerful Likud player Yisrael Katz. At the end of 2023, Katz will return to the Foreign Ministry after having served in the position for a little over a year in 2019-2020, and Cohen will replace Katz at the Energy and Infrastructure Ministry. If this government is still around in 2026, then they will trade back for a year.

Cohen’s actions irked Netanyahu, even though he reportedly knew about the meeting as it came after Italian premier Giorgia Meloni suggested that Dbeibeh’s government start talking with Israel as a way to curry favor with the West. But Netanyahu still tried to distance himself from the debacle in public. The premier reiterated to Cyprus’ ANT1 TV before his visit to the European island state this week that he sent a directive to all government ministries that his office must approve all meetings with countries with which Israel does not have relations. Israel has always been “very careful not to reveal” such meetings with Arab and Muslim leaders in the past, he said. 

“It is very important to maintain these discreet channels which eventually can blossom and flower into open relations…They shouldn’t be publicized in an uncontrolled way. This was an exception. We’ll make sure it’s one of a kind,” Netanyahu said. 

However, an Israeli source with knowledge of the Cohen-Mangoush meeting insisted that both sides agreed to make it public, and said the Libyans did not anticipate the level of violent, antisemitic blowback. The plan, the source said, was for Jerusalem to make a statement and for Tripoli to neither confirm nor deny. This way, they would get credit in the West but have plausible deniability at home. When Israeli reporters from ynet published the story before the official statement was released, the Israeli Foreign Ministry decided to make the announcement a day or two earlier than planned, after getting the OK from Libya, the source said. 

A statement from Cohen’s office emphasized that he knows how to keep a secret. The foreign minister “works regularly in open and hidden channels and many secret ways. The many achievements that he led in recent months would not have come to fruition without discreet preparation,” his spokeswoman said, pointing to his meeting with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in Kyiv, an agreement with Oman to allow Israeli flyovers, resolving diplomatic tensions with Poland, opening an embassy in Turkmenistan and other examples.

This is not the first time Cohen has been indiscreet, even if the results were far worse last week. He was filmed at a synagogue in Budapest this year saying that Hungary would transfer its embassy to Jerusalem. While Hungarian diplomatic sources have said that the break with EU policy is more a matter of “when” than “if,” they were caught off-guard by the public remark and, several months later, have yet to announce the move.

Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen (center) takes part in the official opening ceremony with his Bahraini counterpart Abdullatif bin Rashid Al Zayani (2nd right) for Tel Aviv’s embassy in the capital Manama, Bahrain on September 4, 2023.

Meanwhile, Cohen’s visit this week to Bahrain to dedicate the Israeli embassy in Manama could not have come at a better time for him. He met with Bahrain’s prime minister and foreign minister, and the trip went smoothly, such that his office could point to it and say that the Libya incident had not hurt Israel’s relations with Arab states.

It did, however, make for some awkward conversations with Washington, the diplomatic source admitted.

In spite of the international incident and continuing fallout, and even in spite of Netanyahu’s obvious dismay, Cohen’s domestic political position looks safe, and he is perched firmly in Likud’s top tier these days.

As one Likud insider in the Knesset put it, “no one is talking about it. The party doesn’t care about diplomatic issues unless they are trying to embarrass the other side. The Likudnik in Machaneh Yehuda [market in Jerusalem] is wooed by the successes but the politicians are always more interested in domestic politics.”

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