The White House is trying to stifle diplomatic fallout from an open microphone incident in which President Barack Obama appeared to show frustration with Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu.
In a recent conversation between Obama and French President Nikolas Sarkozy, the latter said about Netanyahu, “I cannot stand him. He is a liar.”
Obama reportedly replied, “You’re fed up with him, but I have to deal with him every day!”
The conversation took place last week in a private room after a press conference at the G20 summit in Cannes. The two leaders did not know that their microphones were open and that reporters outside still were wearing their headphones they had used to hear simultaneous translations of President Obama’s remarks in public.
The French Web site Arret sur Images published the conversation.
The White House would not deny or confirm the conversation on Tuesday, but AFP reported on Wednesday that a top official has insisted Obama had a good relationship with the Israeli prime minister.
Ben Rhodes, a deputy national security advisor, was quoted as having told reporters that Obama had a “very close working relationship with Prime Minister Netanyahu. They speak very regularly.”
He added, “I think they’ve probably spent more time one on one than any other leader that the president has engaged (with). That’s rooted in the fact that the U.S. and Israel share a deep security relationship but also a values-based relationship.”
Rhodes said that Obama had spent time at the G20 summit last week lobbying for the U.S. position that the Palestinian Authority should not seek recognition in international diplomatic organizations in an effort to win statehood.
The Obama-Sarkozy incident was met with criticism from some members of the Republican party, who have long been critical of the president’s policy towards Israel.
GOP nomination contender Mitt Romney said on Wednesday that Obama had proven his disdain for the ‘special relationship’ between Israel and the United States.
“President Obama’s derisive remarks about Israel’s prime minister confirm what any observer would have gleaned from his public statements and actions toward our longstanding ally, Israel,” Romney said.
“At a moment when the Jewish state is isolated and under threat, we cannot have an American president who is disdainful of our special relationship with Israel. We have here yet another reason why we need new leadership in the White House.”
Republican Senator John McCain, who ran against Obama in 2008, was also highly critical of the exchange between the two leaders, saying Obama's remarks reflected his administration's attitude towards Israel.