Unmitigated Gaul: Why does Sarkozy dislike Netanyahu?

The French president is likely peeved that in Netanyahu he hasn't got an amenable head-of-state with whom he can seize an historical moment to refashion France into a pre-eminent Mideast power broker

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Not Netanyahu's biggest fan club
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Michael Weiss
On 10 November 2011 14:11

The French president's dislike of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu goes back further than last week’s caught-on-tape exchange between Sarkozy and Barack Obama.

“I cannot stand him,” Sarko told his American counterpart, who replied with equal exasperation, “You’re fed up with him? I have to deal with him every day.”

There’s no news value in the revelation that Obama and Netanyahu don’t get on, but Sarko’s problems with Bibi are also catalogued, though they hint at more than mere Gallic disfavour.

Rather, the French president is likely peeved that in Netanyahu he hasn’t got an amenable head-of-state with whom he can seize an historical moment to refashion France into a pre-eminent Mideast power broker, a role it has lately tried to assume in Libya and (less successfully) Syria.

According to a WikiLeaks-obtained US State Department cable, the two men met in June 29, 2009 in Paris when Netanyahu, then fresh into his new term in office, was expecting to have a frank and cordial discussion with a chum and centre-right European ally. He and Sarkozy had known each other since 2003 and had even dined together with their wives (or ex-wife in Sarko’s case).

But at the meeting, Sarkozy held a firm line. He reiterated France’s position as strongly backing Israel on the threat posed by a nuclear Iran and in agreeing with its self-identification as a Jewish state.

But he also affirmed his support for an independent Palestinian state (something Netanyahu had, for the first time in his career, come out in favour of at a speech delivered at Bar Ilan University 10 days earlier - a speech which Sarkozy termed “good but insufficient”) as well a “total freeze” on Israeli settlement activity, then still a coagulating White House precondition for Israel’s renewal of direct talks with the Palestinian Authority.

Next came the Sarko snub, as recorded by US Minister-Counselor Kathleen H. Allegrone:

While conveying his feelings of "personal friendship" to Netanyahu, Sarkozy nonetheless deliberately ignored two direct appeals by Netanyahu to break off for a one-on-one exchange, reportedly for fear that "after a tête-a-tête each side says what it wants" about what transpired in the meeting.

The cable also confirms that it was Sarkozy who “drove the meeting from start to finish”, in the words of French diplomat Ludovic Pouille. Sarkozy evidently did most of the talking, too, in order to stop Netanyahu from “set[ting] traps”.

Nevertheless, the Israelis said they found the exchange productive (“no drama”) with the rough patches little more than mutual criticism between mates.

Interestingly, however, the Egyptian Political Counselor Nazih El Naggary, who was also in attendance, read in Sarkozy’s call for “two states for two peoples” and for a Palestinian state that can’t “in any way” challenge Israel military as a sign not only that Sarkozy favoured the Israeli position but that he was angling to “play a larger role in the peace process” and to possibly take advantage of the then-newish chill in US-Israeli relations. Well caught observations, I'd say.

Summits are primed for unfiltered gibbering in front of live mics. Recall George W Bush’s infamous “Yo, Blair” moment with Tony at the 2006 G8, where the US commander-in-chief blamed Syria for unleashing Hezbollah’s attack on Israel - before thanking the British PM for the lovely sweater he gave him. 

Michael Weiss is the Communications Director at The Henry Jackson Society, where this piece first appeared

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