White House does damage control after Sarkozy-Obama exchange

Washington Bureau

The White House is suggesting that President Obama hasn’t damaged his relationship with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, following an embarrassing moment in France last week when he was overheard making dismissive remarks about the Israeli leader.

As fallout from the episode mounts, the White House had been saying little about the exchange between Obama and his French counterpart, Nicolas Sarkozy, at the G20 summit in Cannes.

The two men were speaking in private, apparently unaware that their microphones were still on.

“I can’t stand to see him anymore, he’s a liar,’’ Sarkozy told Obama, according to a French translation of the exchange.


“You are fed up with him, but me, I have to deal with him every day,’’ Obama replied.

Briefing reporters at the White House on Wednesday, Ben Rhodes, a spokesman for the National Security Council, took a question about the flap.

Obama “has a very close working relationship with Prime Minister Netanyahu,’’ Rhodes said. “They speak very regularly.’’

Indeed, Rhodes said, Obama has “probably spent more time one on one’’ with Netanyahu than with any other world leader.


Of course, with any number of differences to sort out, the two may have more need to meet one on one.

Obama has criticized Israel for settlement building activity that has complicated the Middle East peace process. For his part, Netanyahu took offense when Obama stated that any Middle East peace agreement would be based the boundary lines in place before the 1967 war, coupled with mutually agreeable land swaps. He lectured Obama during an Oval Office meeting last May, saying the old lines were indefensible.

Most of what happens at international summit meetings is off limits to the public. So the Obama-Sarkozy exchange is being treated as a rare window into the unvarnished thinking of two world leaders.

It is also becoming campaign fodder. Republicans would love to peel away some of the Jewish voters and campaign donors who traditionally vote Democratic.


Mitt Romney, the Republican presidential front-runner, said that Obama’s “derisive remarks about Israel’s prime minister confirm what any observer would have gleaned from his public statements and actions toward our long-standing ally, Israel.’’

Also weighing in is Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League. Foxman faulted the president for not disputing the claim that Netanyahu is “a liar.’’

“President Obama’s response to Mr. Sarkozy implies that he agrees with the French leader,’’ Foxman said. “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.’’