Sarkozy to Netanyahu: fire your foreign minister

Nicolas Sarkozy (AFP Photo / Eric Feferberg)
In an undiplomatic aside, French President Nicolas Sarkozy suggested to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu last week that he dump his hardline foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman.

“You have to get rid of that man,” said Sarkozy, according to a report on Israel’s Channel Two television news Monday. “You need to remove him from this position.”

An Israeli foreign ministry spokesman termed Sarkozy’s remarks “an intolerable intervention in Israeli affairs”.

Sarkozy, who has been a strong supporter of Israel, made his remarks during Netanyahu’s visit to Paris last week. Netanyahu attempted to defend Lieberman, saying that in private talks, “he sounds completely different” than he does in his public statements. Sarkozy responded by saying that French rightist Jean-Marie Le Pen “is also a nice person in private talks”. When Netanyahu demurred, Sarkozy accepted that the comparison was not fair.

Although Sarkozy’s remarks were clearly part of an off-the-record exchange between the two leaders, three Israeli Knesset members were present during the conversation, and the leak presumably stemmed from at least one of them. Netanyahu’s office, asked to respond to the report, said “the prime minister does not react to the content of talks he holds. However, he expresses his profound respect for the foreign minister.” At a press conference following Netanyahu's talk with Sarkozy, the Israeli leader said that his meetings in Paris were “a demonstration of an unbreakable bond” between the two countries.

Although Lieberman’s public tone is indeed bellicose, particularly towards Israel’s own Arab population, his positions on the peace process have in fact been more moderate than Netanyahu’s. He advocated a two-state solution before the prime minister did and, unlike Netanyahu, he favors handing over much of Arab-populated East Jerusalem to the Palestinian Authority.

When Lieberman recently visited Paris on his first European tour as foreign minister, he was greeted by angry pro-Palestinian demonstrations. French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner ignored opposition calls not to meet with Lieberman although his facial expressions in photographs with Lieberman were noticeably dour.

Sarkozy, in his otherwise friendly talk with Netanyahu, said he could not bring himself to receive Lieberman. “I have always accepted Israeli foreign ministers and I loved to have (Lieberman’s predecessor) Tzipi Livni here at the Elysee,” he said. Livni is now head of the opposition as leader of the Kadima Party. Sarkozy suggested to Netanyahu that he take Ms. Livni into the coalition, as he has Labor Party leader Ehud Barak. “With her and Barak you can make history,” he was quoted as saying. Netanyahu has in fact tried to persuade Livni to join the coalition but she has refused.

Israel Radio reported that the Israeli ambassador to Paris, Daniel Shek, who was present at the Sarkozy-Netanyahu meeting, did not report Sarkozy’s comments to his boss, Foreign Minister Lieberman, at the request of Netanyahu’s party. Upon learning of the comments from the television report, Lieberman’s spokesman said that if the report is accurate Sarkozy’s remarks constituted “a callous attack by a foreign state in our domestic affairs.”

Abraham Rabinovich for RT