Bloggers and columnists had a field day Tuesday after a French photo agency reported that French President Nicolas Sarkozy and President Barack Obama had privately exchanged disparaging remarks about Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
“I cannot stand him; he’s a liar,” Sarkozy is said to have told Obama.
The French Website “Arret sur Images,” said Obama replied: “You’re fed up with him, but I have to deal with him every day!”
Reuters confirmed the exchange, which occurred last Thursday after the two men had concluded a G20 press conference in the French Riviera town of Cannes.
After the two men were ushered into a room for a private conversation, the microphones they were wearing were inadvertently left on for at least three minutes. Reporters, who had been given headsets so they could hear a simultaneous translation of the press conference, could hear Obama scold Sarkozy for not warning him in advance that France would vote for Palestinian admission to the United Nations cultural organization UNESCO over Washington’s strong objections.
(The U.S. has threatened to veto the Palestinian request for admission to the United Nations itself. The matter is now before the U.N. Security Council and France indicated last week that it would abstain.)
When the two leaders then began discussing Netanyahu, the undiplomatic exchange was heard. But the press did not report it immediately at the request of Sarkozy officials. And they were all asked to sign a statement pledging not to report it.
One member of the press was quoted Monday as saying that “there were discussions between journalists and they agreed not to publish the comments due to the sensitivity of the issue.” He added that although it was frustrating not to have been able to report such a gaffe, journalists are subject to rules of conduct when invited to press briefings.
The Washington Post’s Jackson Diehl questioned why so much fuss was made because it is widely known that Obama and Netanyahu have had “poor relations.” He said Obama blames Netanyahu for the impasse in the Middle East peace process, and that Sarkozy “could be expected to feel the same way.” But he then argued that such feelings are not justified because Netanyahu “has been an occasionally difficult but ultimately cooperative partner.”
On the other hand, Diehl wrote, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas “has gone from resisting U.S. and French diplomacy to actively seeking to undermine it.”
If there is a reason for this animus, Diehl concluded, “it must be personal; in substance, it makes little sense.”
Max Fisher, an associate editor at The Atlantic, pointed out that the diplomatic relationship between Obama and Netanyahu “is rapidly worsening” and that each is a “pawn in the other’s game.” If the U.S. support for Israel were to change, he wrote, it would be because of national interests and not “the personal feelings and verbal slights of their elected representatives to the world.”
And the Web site The Blaze turned the whole episode upside down with this headline: “Obama Caught on Live Mic Blasting Netanyahu to French PM.”