REPORTING FROM LOS ANGELES AND JERUSALEM -- The conversation was supposed to be private. But reports have surfaced that French President Nicolas Sarkozy called Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu a “liar” while chatting last week with President Obama.
Several French-speaking journalists, including ones from Reuters and the Associated Press, overheard the remark through headsets that were supposed to be used for simultaneous translation during a news conference on the sidelines of the Group of 20 summit in Cannes, according to wire reports.
Thursday’s exchange was first reported Monday by Arret Sur Images, a French website that analyzes media coverage (link in French).
Sarkozy was apparently not aware that his comments could be heard by reporters gathered in another room when he reportedly said of the Israeli leader: “I can’t stand to see him any more, he’s a liar.”
Obama, whose response was heard only through a French translation, was quoted as saying: “You are fed up with him, but me, I have to deal with him every day.”
The comments are likely to cause embarrassment to both leaders as they try to revive stalled peace talks between Israeli and Palestinian leaders. There was no immediate comment Tuesday from Sarkozy’s office, the White House or Netanyahu’s office.
The media and general public in Israel greeted the news largely with a shrug and a few snickers. After some initial chatter on Israeli radio, the story was largely overshadowed by concerns over a report by a U.N. watchdog on Iran’s nuclear program.
Because of previous disclosures by WikiLeaks, Israelis already knew that their prime minister was viewed skeptically by some Western leaders. The personality clash with Obama, in particular, has been heavily reported in Israel.
Among many conservative Israelis, the perceived animosity from Sarkozy and Obama toward Netanyahu has only bolstered his popularity, though critics have accused him of alienating Western allies.
The handful of journalists who overheard the comments told Arret Sur Images that French officials had handed out devices through which they would be able to hear the simultaneous translation of an upcoming news conference.
The officials did not immediately provide the devices' headsets to journalists, preventing them from hearing the translation of the private conversation that was going on in another room, according to the website. But it said several reporters used their own earphones to listen in on fragments of the exchange.
The journalists initially agreed not to report what they had heard because they realized they had "cheated,” one of them told the site. But when reports of the conversation surfaced on French websites, some news organizations confirmed that it had taken place.
According to Arret Sur Images, the journalists also heard Obama criticize Sarkozy for not warning him that France would vote in favor of a Palestinian request for membership of UNESCO, the United Nation’s cultural agency.
Obama was also reportedly heard asking the French president to try to persuade Palestinian leaders not to pursue membership of other U.N. agencies, because he would be required under U.S. law to withdraw funding for them.
Palestinian leaders have said that they won’t be applying to join other U.N. organizations.
-- Alexandra Zavis in Los Angeles and Edmund Sanders in Jerusalem
Photo: President Obama and French President Nicolas Sarkozy at the Group of 20 Summit in Cannes on Thursday. Credit: Charles Dharapak / Associated Press