Despite the protective efforts of some of the courtlier members of the Fourth Estate, what the President of France said to the president of the United States about the Prime Minister of Israel was on front pages Wednesday, along with what the American president said in reply.
“I cannot bear Netanyahu. He’s a liar,” Nicolas Sarkozy said to President Obama, not realizing the mikes in front of them had been turned on before a news conference at the G-20 summit in Cannes last week.
“You’re fed up with him, what about me?” Obama replied. “I have to deal with him every day.”
The exchange was inadvertently piped into a press room, where assembled journalists agreed not to pass along to the public what they regarded as a private conversation. But the French website Arret Sur Images (“Freeze Frame”) heard tell of the chat, decided it was news, and published the quotes. Neither the White House nor the Elysee Palace issued a denial, to the mortification of nearly all involved.
That relations are more than a bit frosty between Obama and Netanyahu does not qualify as news. On the top floor of the Old Executive Office Building in Washington are the offices of the Middle East section of the National Security Council. Last year, at least, the suite was dominated by an oversized photograph of White House and State Department officials surrounding Obama moments after Netanyahu and his delegation departed the room. The Americans appear shell-shocked, the looks on their faces saying: “Did what I think just happen here actually just happen?” And this was more than a year before Netanyahu used a White House photo opportunity as an opportunity to lecture Obama on camera, scolding his host while misquoting him in a display that reportedly left the chief executive seething.
Still, the candor of the chatter overheard at Cannes is the sort that usually comes out years later, in memoirs or authorized biographies. It was all the more striking for confirming that Netanyahu has problems with more than Israel’s closest ally, something Israeli newspapers have been reporting for months. Haaretz, the liberal daily widely regarded as Israel’s best paper, put the Sarkozy-Obama exchange on its front page, reminding readers that German chancellor Angela Merkel had dressed down Netanyahu recently: “You’ve disappointed us,” the paper quoted Merkel as telling the Israeli premier by phone. “You haven’t taken a single step to advance peace.” Merkel was irked by yet another announced expansion of Israeli settlements, widely regarded as an obstacle to a two-state solution. Haaretz went on to suggest that other foreign leaders, including British prime minister David Cameron “have simply taken to avoiding Netanyahu.” Reporter Barak Ravid wrote that the Hague, which Netanyahu is scheduled to visit next week, is “one of the few major cities in which the Israeli prime minister is still received cordially.”
Israelis are, however, famous for their brusqueness. The word for a Jew born in the country is sabra, or prickly pear. What matters, Netanyahu’s vice premiere told Israel’s Army Radio, is not personality but policy. “Everyone talks about everyone,” Silvan Shalom said. “Sometimes even good friends say things about each other, certainly in such competitive professions. So you have to consider the main things. Is Obama a friend of Israel’s? Is Sarkozy a friend of Israel’s? The answer to all these questions is affirmative and, as far as I’m concerned, that is what’s important.”
The Anti-Defamation League had the same concerns.
“President Obama’s response to Mr. Sarkozy implies that he agrees with the French leader,” ADL director Abe Foxman said in a statement. “In light of the revelations here, we hope that the Obama Administration will do everything it can to reassure Israel that the relationship remains on a sure footing and to reinvigorate the trust between President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu, which clearly is not what it should be.”
The transcript from Canne provides an answer to that question, at least from the U.S. side. After grumping about the Israeli leader, Obama went on to urge Sarkozy to try to persuade Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas to abandon the bid for UN membership.
France’s position is harder to glass, however. Handicappers had been counting on Sakozy’s government to oppose the Palestinian bid in the UN Security Council, where France is a permanent member. But France voted “yes” last week when Palestine came up for membership in UNESCO, the UN cultural organization based in Paris. And last month Sarkozy made news in Israel by referring to Abbas as “a statesman.”