French President Nicolas Sarkozy sought to quell anger after he was caught calling Israeli leader Benjamin Netanyahu a "liar" by telling Jewish groups yesterday that France “will always stand side by side” with Israel on the question of Iranian nuclear ambitions and referring to the prime minister by his nickname of Bibi.
The French president also stressed that Palestinian recognition of Israel is a requisite for the peace process, though he did reiterate the French position that halting Israeli settlement activity is equally important for any two-state resolution.
Mr. Sarkozy met for 90 minutes at the Élysées Palace with members of the World Jewish Congress and an umbrella group of French Jews.
The French leader's comments to US President Obama at the G-20 last weekend, as well as Mr. Obama’s tacit agreement – overheard by French press on translation devices as the two men chatted in a private room – brought an uproar among pro-Israel groups around the world.
Sarkozy, as host of the G-20, said to Mr. Obama about Mr. Netanyahu, “I cannot stand him. He is a liar.” To which Obama replied, “You’re fed up with him, but I have to deal with him every day.”
Those comments, initially withheld by agreement among press at the G-20, were published in Paris at the same time as a new report from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) detailed evidence of an Iranian nuclear weapons program as recently as 2009. Sarkozy, who has at times floated the possibility of military intervention against Iran over the suspected program, nonetheless told the Jewish groups he is opposed to any “unilateral” action by Israel, according to a World Jewish Congress (WJC) press release.
The White House yesterday sought to diminish the importance of the G-20 exchange, affirming an ironclad US-Israeli relationship. Deputy security advisor Ben Rhodes said that Obama and Netanyahu have “probably spent more time one-on-one than any other leader that the president has engaged…. That’s rooted in the fact that the US and Israel share a deep security relationship but also a values-based relationship.”
At the G-20 summit, the conversation between the US and French leaders at the G-20 also included an effort by Obama to explain the American view on a Palestinian bid to boost legitimacy through UN membership. France voted in support of Palestinian membership in UNESCO while the US did not.
Sarkozy is known in France for a history of intemperate statements, despite a recent hiatus of verbal discipline. But his depiction of Netanyahu caught some here by surprise, given Sarkozy’s partial Jewish heritage, his insistence on French schoolchildren learning the history of the Holocaust, his tough stand against anti-Semitism, and a general impression that he has more than other French leaders sought to elevate Israeli interests in Europe.
While a WJC press release says that visitors to the palace did not raise the question of Sarkozy’s private remarks to Obama, the French president nonetheless protested that, “I have defended Bibi throughout my political life,” referring to Netanyahu by his nickname.
Following a similar open microphone set of intemperate comments about Indian leaders by US president Jimmy Carter in the 1970s, the official Indian response was: “Comments that were not intended to be heard, were not heard.”