(Jackson Diehl-WaPo).Binyamin Netanyahu seems to have been the target of some ugly — if off the record — barbs from President Obama and French President Nicolas Sarkozy. Speaking privately (they thought) following a news conference in Cannes last week, Sarkozy said “I cannot bear” Netanyahu, adding that he was “a liar.”
“You’re fed up, but I have to deal with him every day,” Obama responded. The conversation was captured on microphones monitored by the press; the French media held back the news for several days before it was reported by a French photo agency Tuesday, and confirmed by a Reuters reporter who also heard the conversation.
This is not exactly a bombshell: It has been known for some time that Obama has poor personal relations with Netanyahu, and blames him for the impasse in the Mideast peace process. Sarkozy, whose government just broke with Washington to vote in favor of Palestinian membership in UNESCO, could be expected to feel the same way.
But are their feelings justified? Though Netanyahu has never been an easy partner for Western leaders, it’s hard to see why he would inspire so much animus from the two presidents now.
Since taking office in early 2009, around the same time as Obama, Netanyahu has been mostly responsive to the U.S. president’s initiatives despite heading a rightwing coalition that views concessions to the Palestinians with distaste, to say the least. Early on he announced his acceptance of Palestinian statehood, something he has never done; he responded to Obama’s misguided demand for a freeze on Israeli settlements in the West Bank and Jerusalem by imposing a six-month moratorium.
Earlier this year Netanyahu reacted angrily when Obama blindsided him with a speech publicly calling on Israel to accept a territorial formula for a Palestinian state based on its pre-1967 borders, with swaps of territory. Less noticed is the fact that the Israeli prime minister has since accepted those terms.
Though Netanyahu has recently allowed new settlement construction, it mostly has been in neighborhoods that Palestinian leaders have already conceded will be part of Israel in a final settlement. This week he told his cabinet that West Bank outposts declared illegal by the Israeli Supreme Court would be uprooted.
In other words, Netanyahu has been an occasionally difficult but ultimately cooperative partner. He can be accused of moving too slowly and offering too little, but not of failing to heed American initiatives. And Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas? For five of the six months of the Israeli settlement moratorium he refused Obama’s appeals to begin negotiations; after two meetings, he returned to his intransigence. Rejecting a personal appeal from Obama, he took his bid for statehood to the United Nations, where he may yet force the United States to use its Security Council veto.
France last month joined an appeal from the Mideast diplomatic “quartet” — the United States, European Union, Russia and United Nations — for Israel and the Palestinians to return unconditionally to negotiations. Netanyahu accepted. Abbas said no.
Abbas, it’s fair to say, has gone from resisting U.S. and French diplomacy to actively seeking to undermine it. Yet it is Netanyahu whom Sarkozy finds “unbearable,” and whom Obama groans at having to “deal with every day.” If there is an explanation for this, it must be personal; in substance, it makes little sense.