Hot mics, liars, and tempests in tea pots: Does Sarkozy's Netanyahu comment surprise anyone?

French President Nicholas Sarkozy called Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu a 'liar' that he 'can't stand' and President Obama didn't rush to Netanyahu's defense. This is neither surprising nor meaningful.

Charles Dharapak/AP
President Obama (l.) and French President Nicolas Sarkozy make statements to reporters after their meeting at G20 Summit in Cannes, France, last week. Sarkozy, who has labored to improve French relations with Israel, said he 'can't stand' Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and called him a 'liar' in a conversation with Obama.

One high-powered man who's made a career of climbing over rivals to the most powerful position in his country expresses frustration and distaste for another man who's done the same in his country and is in the middle of an interminable, frustrating international dispute. A third man, with a similar background to the first two, also hints at a testy relationship with man No. 2. 

Stop the presses!

Ok. Sarcasm may be the lowest form of wit, but it feels like the appropriate tone for addressing the "hot mic" moment in Paris the other day, when French President Nicolas Sarkozy told President Obama that he "can't stand" Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and that "he's a liar."

The two men thought they were having a private chat ahead of a public conference, unaware that the microphones in front of them were already on. Mr. Obama appeared to share some of Mr. Sarkozy's frustration with the Israeli leader, reportedly saying "you're fed up with him, but I have to work with him every day."

The global order, such as it is, will probably survive.

Mr. Netanyahu – who like the other two leaders, has heard as much and worse directed at him in his political career – will take this in stride. 

Of course, you wouldn't necessarily know this from some of the coverage and reaction in the days since. A story in the Sydney Morning Herald today asserts "the loose remarks reflect mounting international frustration with the stalled Middle East peace process, as well as a barely concealed animosity between Mr Obama and Netanyahu." 

Abraham Foxman, head of the US-based Anti-Defamation League, a pro-Israel organization, went further in a statement yesterday.

"President Obama’s response to Mr. Sarkozy implies that he agrees with the French leader," said Foxman. "What is sad is that we now have to worry to what extent these private views inform foreign policy decisions of the US and France – two singularly important players in the peace process."

The frustration the Obama and Sarkozy administrations feel is real, and there are reasons behind it. Netanyahu has continued to expand settlements in the West Bank and in East Jerusalem. Israel announced an acceleration of construction in response to Palestine being voted a full member of UNESCO, a move the US opposed.

That powerful men with different interests, who disagree on important issues, might not be planning family holidays together, is hardly surprising.

But if Obama really does dislike Netanyahu, it hasn't been reflected in any important way in US policy towards Israel, which has remained one of steadfast military aid and support in a context where the US has pushed for renewed peace talks with the Palestinians, but has been largely powerless to make that a reality. The United States has promised to use its Security Council veto to prevent the UN voting full membership for Palestine, though that effort is currently stalled.

Any animosity for either man from the other will be tempered by their views of their country's own interests and by domestic politics, particularly for Obama. Steadfast US-backing for Israel remains a winner among the American electorate.

And Netanyahu has shown himself more than willing to tweak the United States, which provides his country about $3 billion in annual military and other assistance.

Shortly after the release of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit by Hamas in a prisoner swap in October, for instance, Netanyahu delivered a speech to the Knesset in which he appeared to equate Mr. Shalit's treatment to that of Jonathan Pollard, a US naval intelligence officer serving life in prison following a conviction for spying on his home country for Israel.

"I want to tell you and the entire people of Israel, I never, not for a moment, forget Jonathan Pollard, who has been in jail in the United States for 26 years," Netanyahu said. "We will continue to do everything we can to bring him to Israel."

Those sorts of comments might not be taken as particularly friendly by Obama, though of course he has to confront slings and arrows from closer to home. Just two years ago, Congressman Joe Wilson shouted "you lie!" at the President as he delivered a speech on health care to Congress. Life went on.

Netanyahu, too, has had his probity taken into question by others, sometimes in more direct fashion.

Gilad Sharon, son of ailing former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, wrote in a book on his father's political life released last month that his father was not exactly a fan of the current prime minister. Describing a meeting between the two in 1997, after Sharon felt Netanyahu had reneged on delivering him a promised cabinet post, Sharon told him "A liar you were and a liar you have remained," according to the book. Netanyahu's office denies that was ever said.

Can good personal chemistry between leaders sometimes yield positive results in international affairs? Of course. But usually when the questions are bilateral. Something like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, to which countries like France and the US are important outside parties but not prime movers, is going to be resolved (if ever) by tough compromises made and accepted by the Israelis and the Palestinians.

A moment of candor caught on a microphone changes nothing.

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