After disparaging Benjamin Netanyahu in what they thought was a private conversation, President Barak Obama and French President Nicolas Sarkozy have been widely criticized, and their allegiance to Israel has been challenged.
“I cannot bear Netanyahu; he’s a liar,” Sarkozy reportedly told Obama at the recent G-20 summit at Cannes on Nov. 3.
Obama replied: “You’re fed up with him, but I have to deal with him even more often than you,” according to wire service reports.
But although this exchange caused embarrassment to both Sarkozy and Obama, they are not the only world leaders who have questioned Netanyahu’s honesty.
“I don’t believe a word he says,” German Chancellor Angela Merkel reportedly said recently, in a private conversation, according to Haaretz.
Netanyahu’s truthfulness has been at issue on several occasions since he became a public figure, and the Israeli prime minister even has been caught on tape admitting his own duplicity.
For example, in a video taped in 2001, and released in July 2010, Netanyahu admits that he deceived President Bill Clinton into believing he was helping implement the Oslo peace process, according to the Washington Post.
Speaking to a group of West Bank settlers, Netanyahu, who did not hold public office at the time, said:
“They [Americans] asked me before the election if I’d honor [the Oslo accords]. I said I would, but … I’m going to interpret the accords in such a way that would allow me to put an end to this galloping forward to the ’67 borders. How did we do it? Nobody said what defined military zones were. Defined military zones are security zones; as far as I’m concerned, the entire Jordan Valley is a defined military zone. Go argue.”
“I know what America is,” Netanyahu said in Hebrew, apparently not knowing his words were being recorded. “America is a thing you can move very easily, move it in the right direction. They won’t get in their way.”
Gideon Levy, a columnist for the Israeli newspaper Haaretz said the video was “pathetic and outrageous.”
“The man in the video betrays himself in his own words as a con artist, and now he is again prime minister of Israel,” Levy wrote. “Don’t try to claim that he has changed since then. Such a crooked way of thinking does not change over the years.”
Netanyahu also has seen his share of scandals over the years. In 1998, he faced allegations that he was complicit to an assassination attempt on the founder of Hamas, Sheikh Ahmed Yasin in Jordan, although he was later cleared of those charges by an official enquiry.
In 1999, Netanyahu faced another scandal as he was questioned by the police in connection with a probe into corruption related to gifts from a government contractor during his first tenure as prime minister.
And this past April, the Israel State Comptroller, Micha Lindenstrauss, announced an investigation into Netanyahu’s travel at the expense of private businessmen, and allegations that Netanyahu illegally obtained campaign donations.
But Netanyahu has his defenders as well.
“Netanyahu does have an image of one who changes his mind and is susceptible to pressure,” said Michael Feige, visiting professor in the Schusterman Center for Israel Studies and the departments of Anthropology and Near Eastern & Judaic Studies at Brandeis University, in an e-mailed response to the Chronicle. “I think that this is a wrong view of him as a politician and a statesman. Netanyahu has a strong ideological core and deeply held beliefs regarding the future of Israel, the nature of international relations and his role as Prime Minister, and he is quite willing to compromise on matters that are not of value to him.”
“Netanyahu believes that as a custodian of Israeli security (which for him is the most important component of his job), he should not seek compromise with the Palestinians,” Feige continued. “However, his relations with the U.S. and Europe force him to make concessions, such as declaring his support for a two-state solution. Since then, he has done nothing to prove that his declaration was sincere, and in Israel everyone knows that it probably was not.”
Feige said “it is no surprise” that foreign leaders such as Sarkozy and Obama see Netanyahu as a liar.
“One can be critical about Netanyahu’s policies on various subjects, including his pessimism toward the chances of negotiation and peace, but he has an ideological backbone, and I find him very consistent through the years,” Feige said. “He may be a liar on the tactical level, but strategically he is very dogmatic, with the right-wing ideology that he brought from home, and preached for his entire life.”
Although Feige said that he personally does not agree with many of Netanyahu’s polices, “I would not say that he is a liar.”
Writing for Israel Hayom, Elliott Abrams, a senior fellow for Middle East Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, considered it ironic that Obama and Sarkozy made their remarks so soon after Netanyahu signaled his intent to remove unauthorized settler outposts on the West Bank.
“If this were only a matter of personal relations between Obama and Netanyahu, it could be left at that,” Abrams wrote in Hayom. “But this is far more consequential, for with this comment — and especially as it was made in private and can be interpreted as his actual view — Obama has joined the chorus of assaults on the Jewish state. The U.S. only has one president at a time and Israel only has one prime minister. To treat the prime minister of Israel in this way is disgraceful.”
(Toby Tabachnick can be reached at email@example.com.)