Obama-Sarkozy Gaffe Proving Troublesome in Washington

In an embarrassing moment, Presidents Barack Obama of the United States and Nicolas Sarkozy of France didn’t realize their microphones were turned on as they commiserated about having to deal with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The political backlash, which should be a concern for an Israeli leader, is already starting to hit Obama.

Reuters reports:

“I cannot bear Netanyahu, he’s a liar,” Sarkozy told Obama, unaware that the microphones in their meeting room had been switched on, enabling reporters in a separate location to listen in to a simultaneous translation.

“You’re fed up with him, but I have to deal with him even more often than you,” Obama replied, according to the French interpreter.

But rather than Israel being concerned that world powers, the US and France, find their leader an obnoxious presence, it is portrayed even here as a problem for the President.

“Obama’s apparent failure to defend Netanyahu is likely to be leapt on by his Republican foes, who are looking to unseat him in next year’s presidential election and have portrayed him as hostile to Israel, Washington’s closest ally in the region.

Pushing Netanyahu risks alienating Israel’s strong base of support among the U.S. public and in Congress.”

Republican Presidential candidate Michelle Bachmann wasted no time in using the gaffe for her campaign purposes.

AP reports that, “The Minnesota congresswoman says Obama is showing his lack of commitment to Israel. Bachmann called on Obama to immediately apologize to Netanyahu and said Obama (backslash)should ‘demonstrate leadership and demand that the French President Sarkozy do the same’” Bachmann said Obama is putting space between the U.S.-Israeli relationship and allowing Iran time to obtain nuclear weapons.”

The issue is likely to gain some traction as well on Capitol Hill, as the Anti-Defamation League, whose mission has expanded to frequent defense of Netanyahu and whose voice carries weight in the halls of Congress, also sharply criticized Obama.

“We are deeply disappointed and saddened by this decidedly un-Presidential exchange between Presidents Sarkozy and Obama,” Abraham H. Foxman, ADL National Director, said in a statement. “President Obama’s response to Mr. Sarkozy implies that he agrees with the French leader.

“In light of the revelations here, we hope that the Obama Administration will do everything it can to reassure Israel that the relationship remains on a sure footing and to reinvigorate the trust between President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu, which clearly is not what it should be,” Foxman continued. “What is sad is that we now have to worry to what extent these private views inform foreign policy decisions of the U.S. and France – two singularly important players in the peace process.”

For both Foxman and Bachmann, the problem is not Israeli policies, nor Netanyahu’s reputation for being an extremely difficult person to deal with, a characterization well known in Israel. All responsibility for the difficulties rests with Obama, and it is only he that has to act to “repair” the relationship between the two countries.

It also, apparently, escaped their notice that the exchange came at the end of a conversation where Obama complained to Sarkozy over France’s support for Palestine’s recent bid to join UNESCO.

Bachmann was quick off the mark, but she was soon joined by a line of Republicans behind her.

Mitt Romney tweeted: ““Overheard conversation at G-20 another sign of Obama’s low regard for Israel and its leader…I will stand by our allies, not tear them down.”

John McCain chimed in with this: ““I happen to be a great admirer of Prime Minister Netanyahu…and that kind of comment is not only not helpful, but indicative of some of the policies towards Israel that this administration has been part of.”

And never mind that Obama said nothing whatsoever about Israel, and neither did Sarkozy. Both men simply remarked about another leader who is well known, even in the US Jewish community for his inability to get along well with others.

With the coincidence that these unguarded comments were made public at the same time as the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) was releasing its troubling report on Iran’s nuclear program, it might be that Obama will feel even more compelled to give in to Israel demands, given his apparent belief that he must be more beholden to this right-wing Israeli government than any President before him or lose significant campaign backing.

Mitchell Plitnick

Mitchell Plitnick is a political analyst and writer. His previous positions include vice president at the Foundation for Middle East Peace, director of the US Office of B’Tselem: The Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories, and co-director of Jewish Voice for Peace. His writing has appeared in Ha’aretz, the New Republic, the Jordan Times, Middle East Report, the San Francisco Chronicle, +972 Magazine, Outlook, and other outlets. He was a columnist for Tikkun Magazine, Zeek Magazine and Souciant. He has spoken all over the country on Middle East politics, and has regularly offered commentary in a wide range of radio and television outlets including PBS News Hour, the O’Reilly Factor, i24 (Israel), Pacifica Radio, CNBC Asia and many other outlets, as well as at his own blog, Rethinking Foreign Policy, at www.mitchellplitnick.com. You can find him on Twitter @MJPlitnick.


One Comment

  1. Bibi just loves it whenever he gets an excuse to demand yet another official protestation of Washington’s love for Israel.

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