Open mic. Open mouth. Insert foot.
It seems that politicians never learn: wearing a microphone is like carrying a loaded weapon. You can never be sure when it will go off, or in this case, go live.
The French government is deeply “chagrined” – now we know why it’s a French word – about the latest diplomatic “faux pas” that is turning into a major “scandale”: the all-too-candid conversation between French President Nicholas Sarkozy and President Obama about Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the G-20 Summit in Cannes.
Unaware that the microphones used to enable translations were live, Sarkozy let Obama know just how he felt about his Israeli counterpart: "I can't stand him,” the French president was captured on tape as saying. “He's a liar." The normally silver-tongued American president did not object. "You’re fed up with him,” Obama replied. “But I have to work with him every day."
The French government, and even some journalists, say that the media shouldn’t have reported the exchange because it was picked up before the two leaders knew they were on-mic. In fact, most of the French press did not initially report it because Sarkozy's office had asked journalists not to turn on the headsets until the press conference began. Hence, the comments, under French media traditions, were considerate private, or as we say in America, “off the record.” In other words, we weren’t playing by Marquis of Queensbury rules (definitely not a Frenchman). But Arret Sur Images, a French website that analyzes media coverage of politics and current affairs, apparently didn’t’ get the “do not publish” memo.
To which I say: BRAVO.
The French press, and the French in general, have too often pushed unpleasant current and historical facts under the table. Consider France’s role under occupation in the Holocaust, or in modern times, Dominique Strauss Kahn’s well-known pattern of sexually abusing women, or the payments that Saddam Hussein and other monsters running countries made to French politicians like former French President and Mayor of Paris Jacques Chirac, belatedly being tried for some of the corruption. Investigative journalism is not a cherished activity in France. It’s about time that some of the informal rules and traditions that have protected France’s rich and powerful were more often broken.
So here’s the missing context of the “conversation” and why it’s interesting.
1. Like the leaked “Wikileaks” diplomatic cables, it illuminates a well-established fact in diplomatic circles – that neither Sarkozy, or “Sarko,” as the French media call him, or Obama, can abide “Bibi.” But as is also well known at the White House and the Elysee, that’s a pretty big club. The Israeli prime minister is a hugely polarizing figure, and not only within the diplomatic community. Half of Israelis can’t stand him either, public opinion polls show. Consider today’s reaction of a reader of Ha’aretz, Israel’s left-leaning daily, to the exchange. "Obama is wrong," the reader wrote to the paper’s web site: "We're the ones that have to deal with him every day."
2. It doesn’t really matter if Barry or Sarko like Bibi or not. Both have to deal with him. He is the democratically elected leader of the state of Israel, an ally of both France and America. And Netanyahu will continue doing whatever he feels he must to ensure the state of Israel’s survival, not to mention his own, whether or not that makes him in Sarko’s mind an untrustworthy “liar.”
3. The apparent context of the exchange was as interesting as the dissing of Netanyahu. Arret sur Image reported that conversation apparently began with Obama criticizing Sarkozy for not having warned him that France would vote for Palestinian membership bid in UNESCO, despite Washington's strong objection to the move. Obama has been working to enlist France in the effort to persuade the Palestinians not to continue seeking membership in U.N. before a peace agreement with Israel is achieved. France has promised to help, so the French vote on UNESCO displeased Washington.
4. Despite his obvious disdain for Netanyahu, Sarkozy has worked hard since his election in 2007 to improve relations with the Jewish state. He is no anti-Semite, despite his low opinion of Israel’s leader and his frustration with Israel’s recalcitrance on issues like settlement expansion. Not only is his maternal grandfather Jewish, Sarkozy has often spoken often about the importance of supporting Israel. Only last week at the summit, Sarko said that if Israel’s existence was threatened, “France will not stand by with arms crossed."
Asked about today’s “contretemps,” White House Press Secretary Jay Carney declined to comment. But, he added, Obama believed that “both sides -- Israelis and Palestinians -- need to take steps that bring them together to direct negotiations and not ones that make it harder to happen” -- like lobbying for membership in the U.N. while the negotiating table stands empty. Similar sentiments came from France’s foreign minister.
So let’s all get back to the business. Obama and Sarkozy should continue strengthening U.S.-French ties and pressing Israel and the Palestinians to renew direct peace talks. And the press should continue reporting the gaffes that tell us what’s really going on.