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Open Microphones, Sealed Minds


For a brief moment last week, the world got to peek behind the diplomatic curtains and catch a glimpse of what the American and French presidents really think of Israel’s prime minister.

It was not a pretty sight.

In remarks unintentionally overheard by a gaggle of journalists at the G20 summit in Cannes, Nicolas Sarkozy insulted Benjamin Netanyahu, telling Barack Obama that “I can’t stand to see him anymore, he’s a liar.”

And just how did Obama respond to this slur against the leader of America’s closest friend and ally in the Middle East?

By essentially agreeing with Sarkozy, of course. “You’re fed up with him, but I have to deal with him every day,” Obama moaned.

The conversation was transmitted to members of the press after the microphones in the presidential meeting room had been turned on inadvertently. Mon dieu!

This bad-mannered blunder made international headlines and proved to be a major embarrassment to both Obama and Sarkozy.

It is not every day that we get to hear what politicians really think without handlers, spinmeisters and advisers crafting their choice of words.

Interestingly, White House spokesman Jay Carney pointedly did not deny the remarks attributed to Obama, in effect signaling that the accounts in the press were accurate.

Recognizing the damage that had been done, Sarkozy moved quickly to mitigate the impact of the affair. Over the weekend he reportedly sent a personal letter to Netanyahu in which he took a firm stand on Iran’s nuclear ambitions and signed it, in his own hand, “with friendship.”

And according to a report in the French newspaper Le Figaro, Sarkozy has tentatively agreed to pay a special visit to the Jewish state in January.

Like a child caught with his hand in the cookie jar, the French leader is now trying to “make nice.”

But these gestures will not obscure the unvarnished truth: the open microphone revealed some rather sealed minds.

At its root, Sarkozy and Obama’s hostility to Netanyahu has little to do with the latter’s veracity or genuineness, and everything to do with his entirely justifiable skepticism regarding the peace process.

By refusing to capitulate to pressure to make still more concessions to the Palestinians, Netanyahu has run afoul of the French and American presidents, who apparently have trouble accepting the fact that Israel has the right to pursue its own interests as it best understands them.

It does not seem to matter to them one whit that Netanyahu has offered to relaunch direct bilateral talks without preconditions, and that it is Palestinian Chairman Mahmoud Abbas who refuses to return to the negotiating table or even to recognize Israel as a Jewish state.

The mere fact that Netanyahu does not agree to return to the pre-1967 borders with minor adjustments is enough to set them off.

Sarkozy and Obama are so fixated on appeasing the Palestinians, and are so close-minded about what they see as the need to establish a Palestinian state, that they find dealing with Netanyahu to be a burden.

Rather than expressing a measure of support for the leader of a fellow democracy, the French and American presidents decided to turn policy disagreements into personal attacks.

They would much rather have a more pliable Israeli counterpart, one willing to toss aside Israel’s vital security needs as well as its historical, moral and religious rights, for the sake of international acclaim and applause.

But their candor reveals far more about them than it does regarding the Israeli premier.

It shows, particularly in Obama’s case, that for all the public posturing and talk about standing with Israel, the president is no close friend of the Jewish state.

About the Author: Michael Freund is the Founder and Chairman of Shavei Israel. He writes a syndicated column and feature stories for the Jerusalem Post, Israel’s leading English-language daily, and he previously served as Deputy Director of Communications & Policy Planning in the Prime Minister’s Office under Benjamin Netanyahu. A native of New York, he holds an MBA in Finance from Columbia University and a BA from the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University.


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