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Sarkozy 'liar' jibe unlikely to reduce his popularity

The National Colin Randall

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MARSEILLE, FRANCE // The French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, seems unlikely to suffer further weakening of his domestic appeal as a result of the embarrassing disclosure he called the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, a "liar" in private conversation with the US president, Barack Obama.

Mr Sarkozy may be struggling in pre-campaign skirmishes five months ahead of the 2012 presidential elections but early reaction in France to his incautious words in the ear of Mr Obama have ranged from indignation at the website that made them public to blunt recognition of France's differences with Israel.

Alain Juppé, the French foreign minister, declared yesterday that publication of the private exchanges amounted to an "act of hacking".

According to the website Arret Sur Images, Mr Sarkozy was overheard telling Mr Obama that "Netanyahu, I can't stand him. He's a liar".

He was speaking on the margins of last week's summit of the Group of 20 economic powers in Cannes, France.

Mr Obama was said to have replied: "You are sick of him, but I have to work with him every day."

Mr Juppé said on RFI radio he would not comment on the reported conversation. But asked if Mr Netanyahu was difficult to deal with on the Israeli-Palestinian issue, he said: "He defends his vision, which is not ours because we are now at an impasse."

France's daily newspaper, Le Parisien, reported that Mr Netanyahu was not the only statesman to face flak when Mr Sarkozy talked to the US president.

The paper said the two leaders agreed that George Papandreou, the Greek prime minister, had made a huge mistake in calling a referendum on the bailout plan.

According to Le Parisien, Mr Sarkozy described Greece's leader as "mad" and "depressive" but said there was no point confronting him because he was already "on the ground … knockout".

The generally anti-Sarkozy newspaper Libération seemed to sympathise with the president, pointing out that while Mr Netanyahu may win support in Israel for securing the release of the soldier Gilad Shalit and his firm stance on Iran's nuclear programme, he had "a less flattering reputation on the international stage".

"With a 52 per cent approval rating, his popularity has never been so high," the paper reported. "Abroad, however, his image is more negative."

Libération reminded readers that even in public, European leaders are hardly competing with one another to heap praise on the Israeli premier. In 2010, the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, accused Mr Netanyahu of doing nothing to advance the peace process since taking office.

There has been no formal comment from the Elysée.

One official was quoted as testily brushing aside questions with the assertion that "a lot of nonsense" circulated on the internet.

Public comments in the Israeli media were mixed, while in Washington, the White House declined to comment on the remarks.

A spokesman for Aipac, the leading pro-Israel lobby, also declined to comment on the issue.

But another leading Jewish-American organisation, the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) issued a statement in which they expressed their disappointment at the gaffe.

Abraham H Foxman, the ADL national director, said: "What is sad is that we have to worry to what extent these private views inform foreign policy decisions of the US and France - two singularly important players in the peace process."

Geoffrey Aronson, the director of research at the Foundation for Middle East Peace, a Washington think tank, said the ADL was trying to get Mr Obama "to reaffirm his support for Israel in a manner in which suits their interest".

Others doubted the exchange was a surprise in Washington.

Asked about the relevance on future US-Israel relations, Mark Perry, a Washington-based analyst, said: "This is confirmation of what we've known for a long time - relations between the United States and Israel are strained.

"It's not that Obama's relationship with Netanyahu is strained, it's that Israeli policies have strained relations with the US."

* Michael Hernandez contributed to this report from Washington.


Nicolas Sarkozy's embarrassing disclosure that he called the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, a ¿liar¿ in private conversation with the US president, Barack Obama seems unlikely to hurt him politically

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