Steve Weizman, AFP
Last updated: 9 November, 2011

Netanyahu: hero at home, pariah abroad

Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu may be feted at home for his role in freeing captive soldier Gilad Shalit, but abroad, world leaders are barely managing to hide their disdain for the media-savvy prime minister.

Just how much Netanyahu is failing to win the respect of his global peers emerged on Tuesday after a French website published remarks by President Nicolas Sarkozy, who described him as a “liar” during a private conversation with US President Barack Obama at the G20 summit in Cannes last week.

“I can’t stand him anymore, he’s a liar,” Sarkozy said in French in remarks which were inadvertently transmitted over the translation system and heard by reporters.

“You may be sick of him, but me, I have to deal with him every day,” Obama replied.

The remarks were first reported by Arret Sur Images online news site, with the details confirmed by a number of journalists contacted by AFP.

It was not the first time world leaders have expressed disappointment or even anger with Netanyahu, with most of the frustration focused on the lack of progress in resolving the conflict with the Palestinians.

In February, German Chancellor Angela Merkel reportedly lashed out at him after he criticised Berlin for backing a UN Security Council resolution condemning settlements.

“How dare you?” Merkel told Netanyahu in remarks reported by Israel’s Haaretz newspaper. “You are the one who disappointed us. You haven’t made a single step to advance peace.”

The two had another difficult conversation last month, in which Merkel questioned his commitment to restarting talks after Israel approved a swathe of new homes in annexed east Jerusalem.

EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton has also urged him to show “leadership” and in May, he irked Obama by publicly lecturing him in the Oval Office on the historic struggles of the Jewish people — live on television.

Shortly afterwards, US Defence Secretary Robert Gates reportedly criticised Netanyahu, describing him as “ungrateful,” and saying Washington had “received nothing” in exchange for its support of Israel’s security needs, in remarks published by a respected US columnist.

Even during his previous term in office (1996-1999), Netanyahu was not fully trusted, with US president Bill Clinton saying he had reneged on pledges to withdraw from occupied Palestinian land, torpedoing peace efforts, with the White House accusing him of failing to honour commitments made “at the highest level.”

And around the same time, Britain’s foreign office took an even blunter view of the Israeli leader, with officials nicknaming him in 1998 as “the armour-plated bullshitter” according to memoirs published earlier this year by Alastair Campbell, former communications chief at 10 Downing Street.

Around the world, Netanyahu is viewed “with a few notable exceptions, with growing disapproval,” political analyst Yossi Alpher told AFP.

“But those exceptions are important, particularly to the Israeli public,” he said.

“The Obama administration is clearly unhappy with him, but he manages to get around the effect of this on Israeli public opinion by showing that he’s very much accepted by Congress and by a large section of American public opinion.”

Opinion polls in Israel showed widespread approval for Netanyahu’s role in the release last month of Shalit, an Israeli soldier who had been held captive for more than five years by a number of groups, including Gaza’s Hamas rulers — despite it costing the release by Israel of more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners, many with blood on their hands.

And with speculation rife over the possibility of an Israeli strike on Iran’s nuclear programme, a Haaretz poll last week showed 52 percent expressed confidence in Netanyahu’s ability to handle “the Iranian issue.”

Gabriela Shalev, former Israeli ambassador to the United Nations, says that such apparent slights ultimately have little effect on Israeli public opinion.

“Those who think that the whole world is against us and that Netanyahu is the only one who can stand up for Israel, have had their opinions strengthened,” she told AFP.

“Others who worry that Israel is becoming increasingly isolated (as a result of his policies) also have their beliefs confirmed,” she said.