White House Silent on Conversation With French President Insulting Israeli Prime Minister

The White House is declining to comment about an audio tape from last week's G20 summit that captured President Obama and French President Nicolas Sarkozy venting about Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whom Sarkozy calls a "liar."

The conversation overheard by reporters -- who evidently agreed not to report it because it was captured before the two leaders thought they were on-mic -- was picked up on English and French simultaneous translation headsets.

According to French website, Arret sur images, which analyzes media coverage of current affairs, Obama was heard asking Sarkozy to help persuade the Palestinians to stop their efforts to gain U.N. recognition of a Palestinian state.

Sarkozy told Obama, "Netanyahu, I can't stand him. He's a liar."

Obama did not object to the characterization, and responded: "You are sick of him, but I have to work with him every day."

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    Asked about the conversation on Tuesday, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said that he wouldn't confirm that it happened, but the president's "very firm position" has been that efforts to achieve U.N. membership by the Palestinians were "premature and counterproductive" to the goal of Mideast peace.

    The president believes very firmly 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, Carney added.

    Several French-speaking journalists, including one from The Associated Press, overheard the comments but did not initially report them because staff members of Sarkozy's office asked the journalists not to turn on the headsets until the press conference began, and the comments were deemed private under French media traditions.

    Sarkozy's office would not comment Tuesday on the remarks, or on France's relations with Israel. Netanyahu's spokesman also said he had no comment.

    But Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said Obama's remarks, if true, are "indicative of policies of this administration toward Israel."

    "Israel is under more pressure and more danger than they've been since the '67 war, and that kind of comment is not helpful but indicative of the kind of policies toward Israel that this administration has been part of," McCain said, adding that the French have always been disdainful of the Israelis.

    McCain added that he "would probably fire some aides who allowed that happen," and that the Palestinian-Israeli peace efforts under the administration can't be viewed as "anything but a total failure on the part of this administration."

    Other Republicans also criticized the president.

    "President Obama's comments are disgraceful and inappropriate coming from someone who holds the highest office in the United States. They provide a poor and inaccurate reflection of the American people he was elected to represent, and they must be rescinded," said Rep. Michael Grimm, R-N.Y., co-chair of the House Republican Israel Caucus.

    "When the president complains about his relationship derisively with the prime minister as 'having to deal with him everyday,' it is apparent that he is not committed to our ally Israel," said Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann, who is also running for the Republican presidential nomination. "I call on the president to immediately apologize to Prime Minister Netanyahu and he should demonstrate leadership and demand that the French president do the same."

    Since becoming president in 2007, Sarkozy has tried to strengthen French ties with Israel while also maintaining its traditional good relations with Arab allies. His latest comments may complicate French and European efforts toward Mideast peace.

    Sarkozy has shown little patience with Israeli hard-liners, and two years ago urged Netanyahu to fire his outspoken foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman. In a private meeting, Sarkozy told Netanyahu that "you must get rid of that man," according to two officials.

    In September of this year, the French leader tried to head off the Palestinians' request for membership in the United Nations with a last-minute effort to revive peace talks.

    But France then surprised Washington and other observers by voting last week in favor of membership for Palestine in UNESCO, the U.N. cultural and educational agency. Carney said it's well-known that Obama and Sarkozy disagreed about the UNESCO vote.

    The Associated Press contributed to this report.