Multiple news outlets have confirmed reports, which emerged last night, of an exchange between French President Nicolas Sarkozy and Barack Obama at last week’s G20 Summit in Cannes, during which Sarkozy called Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu a liar, and Obama appeared to sympathize.
The remarks were made during a private conversation that was overheard by journalists. The exchange wasn’t covered at the time, but was reported by a French website yesterday. A Reuters reporter was among the group who overheard the remarks, and Reuters is now confirming that the conversation took place.
Sarkozy is reported to have told Obama: “I cannot bear Netanyahu, he’s a liar.” The Reuters story paraphrases Obama’s response, but other reports have him replying: “You’re fed up with him, but I have to deal with him every day.”
Unless audio of the exchange emerges we can only speculate on the emphasis Obama employed, but I think we can safely assume that the stresses in the sentence were as follows:
“You’re fed up with him, but I have to deal with him every day.” (The Times adds an exclamation point.)
Obama’s response could be regarded as diplomatic. He did not explicitly agree with Sarkozy’s assertion that Netanyahu is a liar, but he didn’t disagree either. This doesn’t, of course, mean that Obama thinks the Israeli leader is a liar; he may simply have thought that, in the context of what he thought was a private conversation, there was no need to argue the point.
As for the substances of Obama’s reply it’s not particularly controversial: it’s no secret that relations between the President and the Prime Minister are strained to say the least after the Israeli leader put Obama straight about a few facts pertaining to the Israeli-Palestinian dispute during his visit to the US in May.
Both Obama and Sarkozy are beset by domestic problems (linked in large part to the Eurozone crisis in Sarkozy’s case), and both leaders are facing the prospect of defeat in elections next year. And they’re growing increasingly frustrated by Netanyahu’s understandable reluctance to hand them a foreign policy triumph by acceding to sufficient Palestinian demands to facilitate serious peace talks. Sarkozy and other European leaders also hope such progress will go some way to quieting their restive Muslim populations.
But the timing is unfortunate to say the least. Speculation about an Israeli or US attack on Iranian nuclear installations has been mounting ahead of the publication of a report by the UN’s nuclear watchdog, the IAEA, which is said to conclude that Iran is actively seeking to develop nuclear weapons – news which will come as a surprise to no-one except the most wishful-thinking doves in the US and European foreign policy establishments. France, true to form, is already indicating that it will oppose strikes against Iran.
Obama will hopefully be pressed on the exchange – he should be asked, for example, to clarify whether on not he agrees with Sarkozy that Netanyahu is a liar, and why, if he doesn’t agree, he didn’t take issue with the remark. His chances of winning back some of the Jewish voters who abandoned him in the wake of the row with Netanyahu are likely to suffer.
As for Sarkozy, he’ll have even more explaining to do.