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.
Being in such company, however, didn’t placate former Israeli Ambassador to Paris Yehuda Lankry, who called Sarkozy’s statements “inappropriate” and “unacceptable” and noted that — whatever Lieberman’s reputation as a “hawk” and “hardliner” — since becoming foreign minister he has upheld Netanyahu’s support for the road map and his later, explicitly expressed support for a Palestinian state. Supposedly, these are the positions that the international community, emphatically including Europe, demands of Israeli officials.
Emmanuel Navon, an Israeli lecturer in diplomatic studies, gave some background:
From the first day Lieberman was appointed foreign minister, a scathing campaign bordering on hysteria has been taking place against Lieberman in the French media. I believe it is possible that the French media and Sarkozy himself, who personally knew … Livni, had hoped that she would form the government, or would at least join the coalition together with Netanyahu if she could not be prime minister.
With all due respect, [Lieberman] did not blow up a plane over Scotland. What we are seeing here are double standards. [Libyan leader Muammar] Gaddafi, with his record as a terrorist responsible for one of the most terrible terror attacks at the end of the 1980s, can be accepted. So what? Is Lieberman worse?
Navon, in citing Sarkozy’s strange double standards, had an excellent point.
Sarkozy assumed office as president in May 2007, and by July 25 of that year — one day after Libya’s release of five falsely charged Bulgarian nurses — Sarkozy was already meeting Gaddafi in Tripoli to sign agreements on a host of issues. Sarkozy immediately “faced a barrage of [international] criticism … for agreeing to build a nuclear reactor in Libya” — seen as heavy and dangerous compensation for the nurses’ release.
But on December 10 Sarkozy was as it again, meeting the Libyan leader in Paris for a ceremony in honor of a number of French-Libyan cooperation accords including the military and nuclear fields. Even in France itself, not noted for idealism in foreign affairs, the meeting drew sharp criticism. A Socialist leader said Sarkozy had invited “a head of state who justifies international terrorism,” a centrist politician called the visit “shocking,” and even Sarkozy’s own junior minister for human rights said, “Col. Gaddafi must understand that our country is not a doormat on which a leader — whether terrorist or not — can wipe off the blood of his crimes.”
Gaddafi, for his part, showed his bona fides as an honored guest by pitching a heated, Bedouin-style tent next to the Elysée Palace for his sojourn, reportedly causing Sarkozy “embarrassment.”
Sarkozy has also worked hard to rehabilitate, sanitize, and strengthen Syrian dictator and terrorist enabler Bashar Assad, also believed to be behind the string of assassinations of Rafiq Hariri and other Lebanese nationalists since 2005.
Sarkozy was continuing a personal tradition in targeting the Israeli foreign minister with his ill-mannered words to Netanyahu — a tradition whose obverse is his cozying up to some of the world’s most egregious barbarians.