Sarkozy, Obama Don't Like Netanyahu: Can Bad Diplomacy Change History?

The French and U.S. leaders were caught on a hot mic dissing their Israeli counterpart, but it might not make much of a difference -- yet

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A July 2010 photo shows Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meeting with Obama in the Oval Office / AP

In a private meeting at the G-20 conference in Cannes last week, French President Nicolas Sarkozy told U.S. President Barack Obama, "I cannot bear Netanyahu, he's a liar." Obama responded of the Israeli Prime Minister, "You're fed up with him, but I have to deal with him even more often than you." The two leaders were still wearing their microphones, which they had unknowingly left turned on. Though a group of journalists heard the exchange on headphones meant for translators, they agreed to treat it as private until a French web site broke the story last night, which Reuters has now confirmed.

The incident is embarassing for all three leaders, but will it make any difference? It's not surprising that Obama and Sarkozy lack affection for Netanyahu, who has publicly harangued the Western leaders for their roles in the Israel-Palestine peace process. It's also not surprising that they would try to keep their feelings private: Obama has to worry about voters in Florida who feel the U.S. should focus less on pushing Israel toward a peaceful resolution and more on "supporting" Israel, whatever Netanyahu might decide that means.

The Western leaders understand that peace won't happen unless the Israeli and Palestinian leaders can be brought together at the negotiating table, something that becomes harder as their relationships with Netanyahu get worse, which they are. But while the subtext of this scandal might seem alarming -- could Obama and Netanyahu drift so far apart that their two nations quietly end their historic alliance, thus shifting the course of Middle East history? -- incidents of bad diplomacy like this one are unlikely to dramatically transform the foreign policies of these two nations.

The diplomatic relationship between Israeli leaders and American leaders is rapidly worsening. A few months after Netanyahu made a speech in the U.S. Congress berating Obama -- the leader of Israel's most important sponsor -- Obama's just-retired defense secretary decried the Israeli leadership as ungrateful allies. Netanyahu appears to be trying to push the American political system in a direction that would be favorable to his policies of unrestrained settlement growth and delayed peace talks; Obama appears to be trying to push the Israeli political system in a direction that would be favorable to his policies of Israel-Palestine peace. Each leader is a pawn in the other's game, so it's not shocking that the two men would be unhappy with one another.

Diplomacy isn't about building positive interpersonal relationships between government representatives, although that's often a tool of the diplomat or the statesmen. Diplomacy is about securing your nation's goals and interests by talking to people. If Obama and Netanyahu perceive their national interests as conflicting, their diplomatic relationship is going to be marked by conflict. That Obama and Chinese President Hu Jintao appear to have a better relationship than does Obama with Netanyahu isn't a reflection of Obama's great love of Chinese state capitalism or any hostility toward Zionism.

Ultimately, long-term U.S. and Israeli interests (and voters) line up; one bad leader-to-leader relationship or a few hot mic gaffes are not going to change the demographic and political causes of the U.S.-Israel alliance. Democratically elected leaders like Obama and Netanyahu are conduits for the nations they serve, and those national interests almost always trump personal feelings. The George W. Bush administration had a notoriously bad relationship with French President Jacques Chirac, for example. That may have led the U.S. Congress to pass some truly absurd anti-French legislation (remember "freedom fries"?), the alliance between these two wealthy, liberal, democratic, Western nations was never really in jeopardy.

That's not to say that the U.S. and Israel could never drift apart, as some analysts worry (a process some Republicans seem eager to accuse Obama of accelerating). The two states have increasingly divergent perceptions of their interests in the greater Middle East, and of how to pursue those interests. The calculus that leads the U.S. to support Israel and that leads Israel to rely on the U.S. could change. But, if it does, that change will almost certainly be driven by shifting U.S. and Israeli national interests, not in the personal feelings and verbal slights of their elected representatives to the world.