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      The Great Obama Shoe Photo Debate: What Was He Trying to Say?

      A photograph of Obama with his feet on his desk has the blogosphere abuzz. But was Obama delivering an insult or was he just feeling relaxed?
      By Gil Ronen and Hana Levi Julian
      First Publish: 6/12/2009, 11:52 AM

      Israel News photo: White House photo

      A White House photograph of U.S. President Barack Obama with his feet on his desk while speaking on the phone with Binyamin Netanyahu has turned into a news story in own right, with reporters in Israel and elsewhere speculating that it was meant to send a message of disrespect.

      The photograph, snapped by White House photographer Pete Sousa, was sent out to news media earlier this week.


      Sole man: Obama talks to Netanyahu (Pete Sousa, The White House).

      The ripples began with an article by a political correspondent for the Hebrew-language newspaper Haaretz who noted the photograph and interpreted its meaning in a way that is consistent with the newspaper’s pro-Palestinian Authority position:

      A photo released by the White House, which shows Obama talking on the phone with Netanyahu on Monday, speaks volumes: The president is seen with his legs up on the table, his face stern and his fist clenched, as though he were dictating to Netanyahu: "Listen up and write 'Palestinian state' a hundred times. That's right, Palestine, with a P." As an enthusiast of Muslim culture, Obama surely knows there is no greater insult in the Middle East than pointing the soles of one's shoes at another person. Indeed, photos of other presidential phone calls depict Obama leaning on his desk, with his feet on the floor.

      The story was then picked up by at least one Israeli TV newscaster, who in turn was quoted by Howard Arenstein of the World Watch news blog on CBS news.

      “Israeli TV newscasters Tuesday night interpreted a photo taken Monday in the Oval Office of President
      “It could also be interpreted as a very relaxed feeling that Obama has when he speaks with Netanyahu,” Amb. Etinger said.
      Obama talking on the phone with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as an ‘insult’ to Israel,” Arenstein reported. “They saw the incident as somewhat akin to an incident last year, when the Iraqi reporter threw a shoe at President Bush in Baghdad.”

      “It is considered an insult in the Arab world to show the sole of your shoe to someone,” the correspondent noted. “It is not a Jewish custom necessarily, but Israel feels enough a part of the Middle East after 60 years to be insulted too.” Whether or not a subliminal message of pressure was intended, Arensein added, "it shows the mood in Israel. They feel cornered. The reactions out of Israel reflect that feeling.”

      Both the Haaretz article and the CBS blog were, in turn, quoted by numerous blogs worldwide. 

      The boss pose
      Haaretz’s take on the shoe photograph, however, is by no means the only one that the picture elicited in Israel. Channel 2 TV’s website submitted the photo Tuesday to an expert on body language, Michelle Stein Teer. She noted that people only put their feet up on the desk when they feel relaxed and at home, as Obama seems to feel in the Oval Office, and calls his pose a “boss pose.” Beside showing that the President is relaxed, she said, the photograph also indicates that Obama is trying to make Netanyahu understand precisely what he wants from him – as Obama’s right thumb and forefinger indicate by their “precision position,” which is used in writing, sewing and other tasks requiring preciseness.

      Teer interpreted the picture’s message as: “I will not change my positions. I await your speech keenly.”


      Obama sending Hillary Clinton a message during the 2008 campaign (Israel news photo / YouTube screenshot).

      'Total control'
      Ambassador (ret.) Yoram Etinger, a former senior Israeli diplomat in Washington, told Israel National News that the President has “total control” of the photographs that are issued by the White House and that he has no doubt that either Obama or a top staffer like White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel approved the picture’s dissemination.

      However, Etinger did not sense that the White House intended any kind of subliminal offensive message by releasing the photo. “I do not think so,” he said. “It could also be interpreted as a very relaxed feeling that Obama has when he speaks with Netanyahu.”

      “In the United States, in is not rare for someone to put his feet up on the desk when you come into his office, because he is relaxed,” Etinger explained. He recalled going to Capitol Hill during congressional recesses and being told “come into my office, I can put my feet up on the desk and talk calmly now, because there are no votes going on.”

      A conciliatory talk?
      Before Haaretz sparked the shoe furor, Israeli media actually reported favorably on Monday’s phone conversation between Obama and Netanyahu.

      News daily Yediot Acharonot quoted an unnamed aide to Netanyahu who said the talk was held in a "conciliatory tone” that "stemmed from the fact that the Americans realize they went too far and that, ultimately, Netanyahu is the partner that they have, and they must embrace him, not topple him.”

      If, however, the Haaretz interpretation is correct, Israel has reason to worry. It would mean that the President is purposely and crudely mocking Israel in front of a vast Arab audience. In that case, the content of Netanyahu's upcoming speech would not make much of a difference and all the Jewish State can do is wait for the other shoe to drop, so to speak.

      If meant as an insult, it would not be the first time that Obama used body language to deliver concealed barbs. During his election campaign, Obama made playful but effective use of non-verbal offensive messages while talking about rivals Hillary Clinton and John McCain.