By Giorgio Cafiero
On 7 November, Haaretz reported that Saddam Haftar, the son of Khalifa Haftar, flew on a private French-made Dassault Falcon jet out of the United Arab Emirates and landed in Israel for a 90-minute visit before flying to Libya. The purpose was for Haftar and his son to pursue ‘military and diplomatic assistance from Israel’, according to the report.
With Libya’s elections scheduled for 24 December, this brief landing at Ben-Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv was part of Haftar’s electoral campaign. The eastern commander, who led the self-styled Libyan National Army (LNA) during Libya’s civil war, wants to differentiate himself from other Libyans seeking to become the country’s head of state.
‘It’s a way of distinguishing Haftar from the rest of the candidates and promising something that is supposed to have value in the eyes of the United States, but also in the eyes of other countries that embrace whatever the UAE – the main sponsor of Haftar – has been doing through its activism in the region, which means Egypt, France, Morocco, and you can go down the list,’ said Jalel Harchaoui, a researcher at Global Initiative, in an interview with The New Arab. ‘It’s a way of Haftar saying “If you support me becoming president, here’s one tangible thing that I can deliver for you and no one else can.”’
The relationship between Haftar and the Israelis is not a new partnership; it dates back to 1987. ‘Contacts between Libyans and Israelis have been underway for some time – probably through the Mossad and other organisations – and it is not surprising that they have intensified lately, given the proximity of the elections in Libya,’ explained Dr Federica Saini Fasanotti, a non-resident fellow at the Center for Security, Strategy, and Technology in the Foreign Policy program at the Brookings Institution.
What made Saddam Haftar’s brief visit to Tel Aviv significant was not the substance of the relationship between his father and Israel, but rather the decision to make it known to the whole world rather than concealing it.
Libya’s fractures and divisions
Politically speaking, eastern and western Libya have major differences that are relevant to any discussion of the North African country entering the Abraham Accords, the agreement brokered by the former US president, Donald Trump, between Israel and a number of Arab states. In Libya’s east, political Islam does not exist; n western Libya, political Islam might not necessarily be extremely popular, but it exists. Whereas eastern Libya is somewhat reflective of the UAE and Egypt’s political systems, the west has much more in common with Tunisia and Algeria, where the Palestinian cause is considered ‘sacred’, as Algeria’s President Abdelmadjid Tebboune put it. Also, the Turkish influence in western Libya matters too, particularly considering Ankara’s efforts to position itself as a defender of the Palestinian struggle.
Within this context, Haftar being the head of state and deciding to bring the country into the Abraham Accords risks reigniting major tensions in Libya. ‘If you broach a topic like normalisation with Israel, you’re going to intensify what differentiates the eastern part of Libya from the western part,’ according to Harchaoui. The implications could be toxic from the standpoint of bringing Libyans together in a post-conflict era. ‘The western part of Libya is the most populous part, containing more than two-thirds of the population,’ said the Europe-based Libya expert. ‘When you look at that part of the population and you say, “I hereby declare normalisation with Israel”, you go [against] all the [UN-led] efforts…to try to avoid a partition of the nation, try to promote unification, reconciliation, and integration.’
US foreign policy implications
Like his predecessor, President Joe Biden and those in his administration believe that adding more Arab countries to the Abraham Accords must be a US foreign policy objective. A bipartisan consensus behind this stance exists among American lawmakers. Hence it is fair to conclude that Haftar promising to bring Libya into the Abraham Accords could help him a fair amount in Washington despite condemnations which the eastern commander has received from certain American officials over the years as well as lawsuits filed against him in US courts.
‘There are many decision-makers [in the USA] who don’t really care about the reality of Libya,’ according to Harchaoui. ‘They say, “If we could have a high-profile leader that embraces Israel, I don’t really care about the details of what happens on the ground. It’s still one step forward.” It’s basically the same reasoning that led Trump to recognise Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara. Like you disregard the consequences of the actual stability on the ground, and you say, “It’s a very nice victory from the point of view of acceptance of Israel, and I don’t care what happens on the ground.” You have a whole faction in Washington, DC that thinks in those terms.’
Indeed, among US officials there has been a total lack of concern for how the Abraham Accords have played out on the ground in the Arab region. In a Machiavellian manner, many policymakers in Washington believe in encouraging more Arab countries to normalise with Israel, regardless of the consequences. The fact that the transactional nature of Morocco entering the Abraham Accords in exchange for US recognition of Rabat’s sovereignty over Western Sahara has revived decades-old tensions between Morocco and Algeria doesn’t matter much to Washington. The same can be said about the tensions which the Abraham Accords have heightened in Bahrain between the government and opposition groups, as well as how the Trump administration’s extortion of Sudan severely harmed the country’s fragile democratic transition.
Israel becoming more and more accepted in the Middle East and North Africa’s diplomatic fold is what matters to officials in Washington and Abu Dhabi. ‘You have this complacency that leads the Biden administration to support the UAE worldview,’ explained Harchaoui. ‘The UAE worldview, acceptance of Israel – all of these philosophies require you to ignore what goes on in the real world.’
Israeli stakes in Libya
Libya-Israel ties would not only serve the interests of Haftar. Benefits could go both ways. Israel has many interests in Libya, from the North African country’s ‘highly strategic geographical position to unlimited energy’, explained Dr Fasanotti. ‘In this chess game, we must not forget the consistent presence of Turkey in Tripolitania which, given the tense relations with Israel and other countries over the issue of offshore gas in the eastern Mediterranean, certainly plays a primary strategic role.’
In eastern Libya, which is the part of the country closest to Palestine, there is a security architecture and political order that suits Israeli interests. The absence of any Islamist political opposition or pro-Palestinian/pro-Hamas groups in Libya’s east is satisfactory to Tel Aviv. It’s safe to bet that the Israelis would take steps to help this Egypt-like order survive over the years by strongly supporting Haftar if he becomes the next Libyan head of state. When asked if Haftar is the ‘Israeli horse in the [Libyan election] race’, Michael Oren, the former Israeli ambassador to the US, replied, ‘Yes, he’s in the race and it’s a track that has been well run.’
By having his son land on Israeli soil, shake hands, and signal a determination to normalise with Israel, Haftar is giving Israel a vested interest in his becoming Libya’s leader. As Marco Carnelos, a former Italian diplomat, noted, considering Haftar’s health issues he may be looking to establish a family dynasty in Libya that could put his son at the helm down the line. Therefore, having Saddam Haftar land in Israel could be about making a powerful statement about how much Haftar would like to invest in a partnership with Israel for the long haul if he is to win the 24 December elections.
At stake for Tel Aviv are also ‘the prestige and this impression of momentum with more Arab centres of power that one by one decide to embrace Israel,’ explained Harchaoui. ‘If Israel could actually maintain that narrative of a persistent momentum in that direction of more acceptability, it’s a form of a win.’
Impact on the Arab region’s geopolitical order
Libya entering the Abraham Accords would further signal success on the part of Emirati activism in Africa following Sudan and Morocco’s normalisation with Israel last year in deals that the UAE helped push through, plus Tunisia’s 25 July 2021 autogolpe which constituted another win for Abu Dhabi. A Haftar-led Libya formalising relations with Tel Aviv would serve the interests of the UAE, USA and, obviously, Israel too. But not all states in the Maghreb would see Libya’s entry into the Abraham Accords as good news.
From the perspective of Algiers, the expansion of Emirati influence in North Africa and the trend to normalise with Israel both threaten Algeria’s national interests. A concern among officialdom in Algiers is that Emirati activism in North Africa, specifically Abu Dhabi’s efforts to bring countries in the Maghreb and Sahel into the Abraham Accords, is leaving Algeria in a weaker and more vulnerable position. For example, after Rabat normalised with Israel in exchange for Washington’s recognition of Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara, the Algerian Prime Minister said that there was a ‘real threat on our borders, reached by the Zionist entity’.
‘Algeria would see any normalisation of ties with Israel by Haftar as evidence of the general’s designs on its stability and a grave escalation on his part,’ Sami Hamdi, the Managing Director of the International Interest, a global risk and intelligence company, told The New Arab. Indeed, there would be a concern that with both Morocco and Libya locked into diplomatic agreements with Israel, such relations with Tel Aviv could be weaponised against Algeria down the line.
* Giorgio Cafiero is the CEO of Gulf State Analytics.
** This article was first published by The New Arab
The United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres says his meeting with Libya's most powerful military commander, General Khalifa Haftar has ended in failure. Yesterday, Haftar ordered his forces to advance on the capital Tripoli. Guterres met with Khalifa Haftar in Libya's city of Benghazi in an attempt to prevent a major new military confrontation. For more on this story, we are now joined on the line by Ebrahim Deen, a researcher at the Afro-Middle East Centre-AMEC.
Libya's Deputy Prime Minister Ahmed Maiteeg has labelled Khalifa Haftar's troop invasion of Tripoli as a coup. Maiteeg says Haftar is trying to take power by force, to control the city and get back to a period of military rule in Libya. His comments come in the wake of Libya's U.N. backed Government of National Accord's call to end the fighting. For more on this story, we are joined on the line by Ebrahim Deen. He is a researcher at the Afro-Middle East Centre, a research institute based in Johannesburg South Africa.
Khalifa Haftar’s 4 April announcement declaring his march on Tripoli, and the subsequent attack on the Libyan capital by his forces, threaten to gravely impact the already tenuous process of placing the country on a more inclusive and representative trajectory, and highlights his intention to subjugate all of Libya to his rule. As a result of the Haftar threat, the Libyan National Conference planned by the UN, and which was to be held this week, was postponed. Significantly, unlike in relation to his rapid capture of the South between December 2018 and March 2019, Haftar’s move westwards is likely to be fraught with challenges; even if it is successful, his grip on power will continue to be subject to low-level insurgent warfare.
Haftar’s decision to march on Tripoli was likely influenced by the announcement of the UN’s national conference, which was to be held in the southwestern town of Ghadamis. It was hoped the conference would agree on a roadmap for Libya’s future that would include a provision for elections to be held before the end of this year. Haftar’s likely fear was that the diverse, and fairly representative 120-person conference would have opposed his super-sized role in the country’s future, especially since he wants to become the supreme military commander in any future settlement. Significantly, a February meeting in the UAE between Haftar and the head of the internationally-recognised Government of National Accord (GNA), Fayez al-Sarraj, sought to formulate a compromise, and proposed reducing the Presidential Council (PC) that controlled the GNA from nine members to three, and tacitly acknowledging that Haftar would be one of the three. Indeed, the proposed compromise was too heavily weighted in Haftar’s favour for it to be implemented by the GNA.
Haftar calculated that his march on Tripoli would spur militia groups in the West to quickly change sides, joining his forces and allowing him to rapidly conquer the city. His previous such offensive was in the South where, through crafting opportune alliances and by instigating rivalry and warfare between southern tribes, he was able rapidly to capture much of that part of the country, even though his hold on the area is tenuous. With the fall of the South, Haftar now controls all Libya’s oil resources, which empowers him in any future negotiations.
However, he had miscalculated; a few smaller towns, such as Rujban and Surman, shifted allegiances, but most militia groups mobilised to defend the capital. Significantly, the large Bunyan Marsus militia from the city of Misrata dispatched troops to defend Tripoli, even though Haftar attempted to involve it in local skirmishes around Sirte. Further, militia form the city of Zintan also joined the Misratans, even though Zintan’s leadership is divided on whether to support the GNA. After Haftar’s initial approach to Tripoli, the frontlines have remained constant, just outside the city, with his self-styled Libyan National Army being unable to breach its barriers.
Foreign powers, especially France, Russia, the UAE and Egypt, continue to support Haftar, even though French diplomats claim they did not authorise the march on Tripoli, and despite the fact that these countries issued a statement on 4 April asking Haftar to halt his offensive. An example of this support is that a 6 April UNSC formal statement condemning Haftar was blocked by Russia, with the result that the UNSC issued just a press statement that called on ‘all forces’ to halt activities. Echoing that sentiment, the French foreign minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, said, ‘both sides will have to come to a new understanding’.
It is likely that the UAE, Egypt and Saudi Arabia green lighted Haftar’s march on Tripoli. In his visit to Cairo on 6 and 7 April, he received unequivocal support from Egypt’s president, Abdul Fattah El-Sisi. France is unlikely to halt its support to Haftar; Paris is keen to control Libya’s vast oil resources, and Haftar’s counter terrorism rhetoric that paints all Islamists as terrorists appeals to Macron. Paris is also attracted by the ‘stability’ that a Haftar victory would bring, especially since France maintains strong interests in former colonies Niger and Chad, which have been negatively impacted by Libya’s current chaos.
Moscow dispatched troops, equipment and private contractors to support Haftar; Russia’s interest is resuming the large military contracts it had lost after Gadhafi’s ouster, which it believes Haftar will revive. In general, Moscow also favours strongmen, which it, like France, believes would ease its re-entry into the continent; it has thus supported Sisi’s Egypt and Bashir’s Sudan.
Highlighting the fact that Libya has become a battle ground between foreign powers, Russia warned against outside interference, fearing that the USA and Italy might strengthen support for the GNA. Matteo Selvini, Italy’s deputy prime minister, recently intensified criticism of French activities in Libya in support of Haftar. Meanwhile, the EU’s statement on Libya, which would have condemned Haftar, similar to the US statement, was blocked by Paris.
The African Union continues to be a non-player, restricting itself to monitoring events. The continental organisation had planned a July reconciliation conference on Libya, but it is now uncertain whether it will go ahead or have much impact, despite the AU’s insistence that there were no plans for a postponement. Algeria, one of the key actors influencing the AU on Libya, is currently involved in its own leadership transition.
If Haftar’s move on Tripoli intensifies into a battle, Libya’s civil war will enter a deadlier phase, especially since weapons’ proliferation in the country is ubiquitous. It will also increase destabilisation in the region, where contestation over power is occurring in Sudan and Algeria, and where conflicts in Mali, Burkina Faso and, to an extent, Egypt continue. The international community must ensure that the Libyan National Conference goes ahead as soon as possible.