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November 3, 2021 12:11 pm

Why Israel Should Care About the Future of Libya

avatar by Patrik Kurath


Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi speaks during his meeting with Libyan Prime Minister Abdulhamid Dbeibeh at the Presidential Palace in Cairo, Egypt February 18, 2021. The Egyptian Presidency/Handout via REUTERS

With its geographical proximity to Israel — and its status as the scene of great power rivalry in the Middle East — instability in Libya has important consequences with regard to the security and related strategic considerations for Israel.

Libya’s lack of a united military apparatus, and its patchwork society, which is divided into a multitude of tribal interest groups and their respective militias, has opened doors for extremist Islamist groups to use the country as their forward operating base.

Spillover effects as a result of this state of insecurity have not only affected Libya’s neighbors — such as Tunisia, which saw terrorist attacks being committed on its grounds by jihadists trained in Libya as early as in 2015; or Egypt, which had to carry out pre-emptive strikes on a terrorist convoy near its border with Libya — but have also reached Israel.

A relatively recent investigation revealed that Hamas used the quagmire of the Libyan civil war to build an arms-smuggling network that diverted anti-aircraft missiles from Libya via Egypt, which were destined to reach Gaza. Opportunities for operations like this to emerge in the future pose a direct security threat to Israel.

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Groups smuggling weapons from Libya were exposed as early as in 2011, and have posed a continuous risk to Israel ever since. The true magnitude of this effort was showcased in a spectacular way in May 2021, during the Hamas-Israel war. According to estimates released by the Israel Defense Forces, a staggering 4,400 projectiles were fired at Israel over the 11 days of the conflict. Hamas has continued to target the country ever since, and uncovering and shutting down international weapons smuggling networks has become a key priority for Israel in preparation for any future confrontation.

Continued instability in Libya also affects Israel indirectly by way of having a detrimental effect on the economies of other players in the region, including Egypt, Israel’s southern neighbor and longest serving Arab partner. Not only did Egypt lose tens of millions of dollars in yearly remittances provided by its migrant workers in Libya as a result of the civil war, but it is estimated that the conflict helps deprive the country of the promise of as much as 4.46% of GDP growth.

Egypt’s overall economic condition is relevant to Israel not only because of the ever-deepening trade relations between the two countries, but also because Egypt has taken significant responsibilities in managing the delivery of aid to the Gaza Strip via its Rafah border crossing over the years. In May 2021, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi pledged $500 million dollars for the reconstruction of the Gaza Strip after the war. Successful efforts of rebuilding Gaza and its core public services play an important role in decreasing security threats emanating from it towards Israel.

Although a bit farther removed from Israel’s most immediate strategic considerations, the involvement of great powers — and great power aspirants — in Libya’s domestic affairs will undoubtedly have important geopolitical consequences for the entire Middle East. Turkey and Russia appeared as prominent players on opposite sides of the Libyan strategic scene. Although their foreign policies are seemingly aligned on another issue of region-wide concern, i.e. Syria’s ongoing civil war, markedly different considerations drive each of their actions on this issue. Arguably, neither of these serve Israel’s best interests.

On the one hand, Russia’s efforts at bolstering Benghazi-based General Khalifa Haftar — and the Libyan National Army under his command — have been aligned with those of Egypt and the UAE. Notwithstanding, if Haftar’s offensive in April 2019 had succeeded in overtaking Libya’s capital, Tripoli, and especially with Russian military assistance, it is reasonable to believe that President Vladimir Putin would have eventually cashed in the favor to garner support for the full restoration of the Assad regime.

With strong Iranian support and influence behind it, the Assad regime represents a significant risk to Israel’s security. Syria has, for years, been used as a transit country for Iran’s proxy activities to prop up Hezbollah and other terror groups.

On the other hand, Turkish gains in Libya in the longer term are similarly disadvantageous from Israel’s perspective. Turkey is currently working with the country’s leadership on economic and other initiatives, and any future Libyan power structure that grows out of the current government, led by Prime Minister Abdul-Hamid Dbeibah, would entail significant strategic gains for Turkey. Intervening in Libya’s domestic affairs is also a part of Turkey’s broader efforts of projecting its power across the Muslim world — as envisioned by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his former foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu. This is especially concerning with regard to Israel — because Turkey’s Muslim foreign policy rhetoric touches on the question of the status of Jerusalem, as well as guardianship over the Temple Mount.

While it deferred any final decision on the contentious issue of the restoration of Assad for the time being, Turkey’s true interests lie in making sure that Syria’s north-eastern Kurdish territories do not gain independence. This is crucial for Erdogan. Turkey’s best bet at currently guaranteeing this outcome is the return to some form of the pre-civil-war political configuration of Syria under Assad. Again, based on the above, it is clear how such a scenario would pave the way for stronger Iranian influence in the region, at the detriment of Israel’s interests.

Israel did well not to get entangled in the multi-party quagmire of vying for direct influence in Libya. An alternative proactive policy path for Israel would be helping foster the emergence of a truly impartial Libyan authority structure — one that owes no favors to either Russia and Arab states on the one hand, or Turkey on the other, but which is more aligned with the liberal and democratic political ideals that Israel itself strives for.

Current political developments from inside Libya, complete with political clashes and the postponement of planned parliamentary elections, suggest that stability is not within reach in the near future. In the meantime, for direct, indirect, and broader geopolitical reasons, Israel should continue to follow developments in Libya closely.

Patrik Kurath is the executive vice president of the Middle East and North Africa Forum, a think tank based at the University of Cambridge.

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