The Israeli press was abuzz on Tuesday after a Monday night TV report stating that, in their meeting in Paris last week, French President Nicolas Sarkozy had told Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu to “get rid of” Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman.
Although the French leader’s faux pas stunned Israel, it wasn’t his first aimed at leaders of democracies. Sarkozy has unleashed a mass of insults towards Western leaders that are way outside normal diplomatic protocol, while at the same time showing high regard and cutting sweet deals with some of the Middle East’s cruelest dictators.
In this latest contretemps, Israel’s Channel 2 news claimed Sarkozy had professed himself unable to meet with Lieberman, and had further told Netanyahu to replace him with Tzipi Livni, the previous foreign minister, whom he called a better choice: “With her and [Defense Minister Ehud] Barak,” Sarkozy reportedly said, “you can make history.”
Netanyahu reportedly replied that Lieberman made a better impression privately than in public, to which Sarkozy answered that French far-right leader and Holocaust-denier Jean-Marie Le Pen was also a nice person in private. When Netanyahu objected that Lieberman was not Le Pen and the two shouldn’t be compared, Sarkozy reportedly agreed that it was an unfair comparison.
On Tuesday morning Yediot Aharonot, Israel’s largest daily, reported this statement by Netanyahu’s office: “The prime minister does not refer to the contents of the talks he conducts, and Prime Minister Netanyahu expresses great esteem for the foreign minister” — a tepid nondenial of Sarkozy’s offensive remarks if there ever was one.
Lieberman’s own Foreign Ministry was understandably a good deal less diplomatic, blasting Sarkozy for his “intolerable intervention in internal Israeli affairs” and stating that “if the words attributed to the French president are correct, then the intervention of the president of a respected, democratic state in the affairs of another democratic state is grave and unacceptable. We expect that — regardless of political affiliation — all political bodies in Israel condemn this callous intervention of a foreign state in our internal affairs.”
The Foreign Ministry also expressed its awareness that it wasn’t, indeed, the first time Sarkozy had denigrated a democratic leader. As reported in the French daily Liberaćion, Sarkozy had previously said U.S. President Barack Obama “does not meet standards of decision-making and effectiveness” and that Spanish Prime Minister José Luis Zapatero is “not intelligent enough.” The Zapatero remark (but not the Obama one) was later denied by Sarkozy’s office. Somewhat earlier, Sarkozy had also harshly criticized German Chancellor Angela Merkel.