President Obama and French President Nicolas Sarkozy shake hands during the G20 summit. An open microphone caught Mr. Sarkozy criticizing, and Mr. Obama apparently not defending, Israel's prime minister.
Associated Press Enlarge
PARIS -- French President Nicolas Sarkozy branded Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu "a liar" in a private conversation with President Obama that was accidentally broadcast to journalists during last week's G20 summit in Cannes, France.
"I can't stand Netanyahu; he's a liar," Mr. Sarkozy told Mr. Obama, unaware that the microphones in their meeting room had been switched on, enabling reporters in a separate location to listen in to a translation.
"You're fed up with him, but I have to deal with him even more often than you," Mr. Obama replied, according to the French interpreter.
The gaffe is likely to cause great embarrassment to all three leaders as they look to work together to intensify international pressure on Iran over its nuclear ambitions.
The conversation was not initially reported by the small group of journalists who overheard it because it was considered private and off the record. But it emerged on French Web sites and can be confirmed byReuters.
White House press secretary Jay Carney declined to comment on the conversation.
Mr. Obama's apparent failure to defend Mr. Netanyahu is likely to be leapt on Republicans looking to unseat him in next year's presidential election, who have portrayed him as hostile to Israel, Washington's closest ally in the region.
Mr. Sarkozy's office would not comment Tuesday on the remarks, nor on France's relations with Israel.
Since becoming president in 2007, Mr. Sarkozy has strengthened French ties with Israel while also seeking to use France's traditional good relations with Arab allies to encourage peace talks.
Mr. Netanyahu's office declined to comment, but one of his deputies, Vice Premier Silvan Shalom, played down the episode.
"Everyone talks about everyone. Sometimes even good friends say things about each other, certainly in such competitive professions," he told Israel's Army Radio. "So you have to consider the main things. Is Obama a friend of Israel? Is Sarkozy a friend of Israel? Is their policy a consistent policy of support for Israel? The answer to all of these questions is affirmative and, as far as I'm concerned, that is what's important."
Mr. Obama and Mr. Netanyahu have had a rocky relationship as U.S. efforts to broker Middle East peace have foundered, with Mr. Obama openly criticizing Jewish settlement building in the occupied Palestinian territories.
It was unclear why Mr. Sarkozy had criticized Mr. Netanyahu. But European diplomats have largely blamed Israel for the breakdown in peace talks and have expressed anger over Mr. Netanyahu's approval of large-scale settlement building.
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