Say what you will about Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, others have said far worse. Yitzhak Shamir, a former prime minister, once said that Netanyahu is “not a very trustworthy man.” He went on to call him “too egotistical,” “not very popular” and to observe that “people don’t like him.” Then, to state the very obvious, Shamir said, “I don’t like him.”
Not many people do, it turns out. Shamir’s remarks, in a 1998 New Yorker article by David Remnick, its current editor, are newsworthy only because they were stated on the record. Usually, the character appraisal of Netanyahu is conducted in a whisper or a background briefing. The word often used is “liar.”
Now that very word has been inadvertently placed on the record by the president of France, Nicolas Sarkozy. Talking to President Obama at the G-20 summit last week in Cannes, Sarkozy said, “I cannot bear Netanyahu, he’s a liar.”
Neither Sarkozy nor Obama realized that their devices designed for simultaneous translation had gone live and that they could be heard by reporters. So Obama, apparently confident he was speaking privately, added, “You are fed up with him, but I have to deal with him even more often than you.” I hear him sounding like a man talking about his mother-in-law.
The Anti-Defamation League, pro-Israel and ever alert to insults and such, issued a press release lamenting the exchange and what it could mean to the peace process and God only knows what else: “What is sad is that we now have to worry to what extent these private view inform foreign policy decision of the U.S. and France — two singularly important players in the peace process,” the organization said. It acted as though until that moment no one knew how Obama felt about Netanyahu.
It’s worth exhuming the Remnick article not just to gauge the extent of the loathing of Netanyahu within Israel, but also to realize that it is nothing new. Bill Clinton, who adored Israel and was not for a moment hostile to the Jewish state, also did not get along with Netanyahu. Netanyahu lectured Clinton, as he later did Obama, and Clinton felt, in Remnick’s words, “dissed by the leader of a country smaller than Vermont that gets three billion in aid every year.” Later on in the Clinton presidency, when Air Force One and the Netanyahu plane were parked near each other in Los Angeles, Clinton found he did not have any time for a brief meeting.
Whatever the ADL had in mind with its news release, it added to the impression that Obama is uniquely antagonistic to Netanyahu and uniquely cool to Israel. Partly this is Obama’s doing. He has shown little overt affection for Israel — but then, outside his own family, he shows little affection for anything. It is the showing where he comes up short as a politician and national leader — although his petulant refusal to visit Israel (he has gone to Egypt) has hardly helped his image.
But when it comes to Netanyahu, Obama is part of a throng of people — Israelis much more than Americans — who finds the man overbearing and duplicitous. Now we know Sarkozy feels the same way. If the peace process is affected by all this, then the fault is not Obama’s or Sarkozy’s, but Netanyahu’s. In the fractious Middle East, he is about the only thing world leaders can agree on.