On a day when the United Nations offered evidence of an Iranian nuclear weapons program, the news that French President Nicolas Sarkozy was caught calling Israel’s prime minister a “liar” to President Obama highlighted tensions between Israel and its Western allies – and whether they can effectively team up to face a common enemy.
While the criticism was generally taken in stride by the Israeli media, which has heard similar complaints from other Western leaders, the remarks are a reminder of how US-Israeli relations have soured with Mr. Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the helm.
“This isn’t new,” says Shimon Shiffer, a diplomatic commentator for the Yediot Ahronot newspaper, who compares the two to a couple who fakes their romance. “For the last eight months, they have tried to hide it.’’
Growing international isolation?
But despite the personal friction, Mr. Shiffer asserts that strategic cooperation between the two countries remains strong, and predicts it will continue in the face of jointly held concerns about Iran’s nuclear program.
A more difficult challenge may be Israel’s relationship with other global leaders amid a growing climate of isolation since the Gaza war, the fatal Israeli raid on a Gaza flotilla, and now the Palestinian bid for membership in the United Nations.
“The question is … to what extent can the government of Israel coordinate its moves with the international community” on Iran given global leaders’ lack of confidence in Netanyahu, wrote military commentator Amos Harel in the liberal Haaretz newspaper.
Haaretz mentioned former Defense Secretary Robert Gates, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, British Prime Minister David Cameron, and Jordan’s King Abdallah as other Israeli allies who have made unflattering remarks about Mr. Netanyahu.
Obama’s rocky – but improving – relations with Israelis
The off-camera remarks, picked up by a microphone inadvertently left on, offered a Wikileaks-like glance of the two world leaders’ gossip about Mr. Netanyahu. In response to the French president’s remark, President Obama sympathized and complained of having to deal with his Israeli counterpart so frequently.
On the Facebook page of “My Israel,” a right-wing pro-settler nonprofit, organizers called on followers to protest on the websites of the US and French embassies and suggested boilerplate messages.
Sure enough, on the Facebook homepage of the US and French embassies, there were several posts that shot back the same text, “We don’t accept your president insulting our leader. Right and left we are all behind our prime minister. Friends don’t insult friends.’’
Obama’s popularity in Israel was weak early on in his term, when his administration pressed Israel to stop building settlements in the West Bank. But his approval rating has risen in recent weeks after an emphatically pro-Israeli speech at the United Nations criticizing the Palestinian application for membership.
Still, many Israelis stand by their leader no matter what tension it may cause with other nations. Commentator Matti Tuchfeld wrote in the pro-Netanyahu daily newspaper, Israel Today, that the prime minister “was appointed to his post to be faithful to his path, which he has an electoral mandate for. If that’s not acceptable to the leaders of the world, it’s their problem.”