Netanyahu rues his foreign minister's disclosure of meeting with Libyan counterpart

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu holds a weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem

JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday appeared to shift blame to his top diplomat for the disclosure of a secret meeting with the Libyan foreign minister that has caused a backlash in Tripoli.

Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen's office on Aug. 26 went public with his having met Najla Mangoush, his Libyan counterpart, in Italy earlier in the month. The statement came on the heels of an Israeli media report about the meeting.

The news triggered protests in Libya, which does not recognise Israel and where pro-Palestinian sentiment is strong, and led Prime Minister Abdulhamid al-Dbeibah to fire Mangoush.

"It is not helpful, now that's clear," Netanyahu told Cypriot TV station ANT1 when asked about the publication.

"I've issued a directive to all our government ministers that such meetings of this kind have to be cleared in advance with my office, and certainly their publication has to be cleared in advance with my office."

Analysts say Dbeibah and other Libyan leaders have attempted to build ties with Israel in the hope that the United States, which sees Arab normalisation of relations with Israel as a priority, would support them in Libya's internal political rifts.

Israel, for its part, is keen to pursue discreet talks with potential Arab and Muslim partners in the hope that they will develop into full ties. In the ANT1 interview, Netanyahu called the handling of the Cohen-Magoush meeting "an exception to the rule".

In an Aug. 28 social media post pushing back against the furore, Cohen defended his ministry for "always working in overt and covert channels, and in a range of discreet means, to bolster Israel's foreign relations".

(Writing by Dan Williams and Michele Kambas; Editing by Hugh Lawson)