Sarkozy overheard telling Obama at summit Israeli prime minister 'a liar'


FRENCH PRESIDENT Nicolas Sarkozy told US president Barack Obama he was fed up dealing with Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu and considered him a liar.

Mr Sarkozy made the alleged comments during a private conversation with Mr Obama at last week’s G20 summit in Cannes, and the remarks were overheard by a small number of journalists but not initially reported.

“I can’t stand Netanyahu. He’s a liar,” Mr Sarkozy said, according to the French website Arrêt Sur Images. “You’re fed up with him, but I have to deal with him every day,” Mr Obama replied.

The veracity of the report was confirmed by the news agency Reuters, which said one of its reporters heard the exchange, while the AFP agency said its sources had corroborated the story.

The conversation took place as the two leaders were about to give a joint briefing to the press in Cannes last Thursday. Their microphones had been attached and switched on, allowing journalists who had already turned on their interpreting sets in an adjoining room to listen in.

The exchange began with Mr Obama criticising Mr Sarkozy for not warning Washington that France would vote in favour of the Palestinians’ application to join Unesco, the UN agency for culture and education, a request the US opposed. He also asked Mr Sarkozy to try to convince the Palestinians to ease up in their campaign for recognition as a state by the UN, Arrêt Sur Images said.

A staff member from the Élysée Palace reportedly explained that the headphones to go with the interpreting sets were not yet being handed out because this would have allowed the journalists to listen in on the private conversation. That prompted a number of reporters to plug in their own earphones, allowing them to catch about three minutes of the discussion before the officials realised the mistake.

Accounts differed on why the journalists didn’t report the story, some saying they held back because of the sensitive nature of the material and others claiming they did not want to embarrass officials in the Élysée press service.

The content of the exchange comes as no surprise, as relations between Mr Sarkozy and Mr Netanyahu have been strained for much of the year. France’s rhetoric towards Israel has grown more critical in recent months, with Paris frustrated by Israel’s settlement-building programme and impatient for peace talks to begin.

Mr Sarkozy came to power in 2007 seeking to “rebalance” France’s relationships in the Middle East and end the pro-Arab orientation of his predecessor Jacques Chirac. His maternal grandfather was a Jewish doctor born in the Greek city of Salonica, and the first foreign dignitary to whom he accorded a state visit was Israeli president Shimon Peres, who had connections to France.

During a speech in the Israeli Knesset in June 2008 – the year Israel marked its 60th anniversary as a state – Mr Sarkozy said Israel was “not alone” and France would always be at its side “when its existence is threatened”. France’s rapprochement with Israel allowed for what it called “strategic dialogue” with the Jewish state, but the insistence on peace talks leading to a two-state solution has held firm under Mr Sarkozy.

With little sign of a breakthrough on a peace plan, however, France’s rhetoric towards Israel has hardened recently. Paris welcomed the rapprochement between Hamas and Fatah, and in June foreign minister Alain Juppé said the Israelis should “extend the hand” to Palestinians.

This shift was underlined when France defied Israel by voting in favour of the Palestinians’ Unesco application, although it said last week it would abstain in any vote on membership of the UN.