US aims to allay Israel after G20 open mike flap

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The White House tried to stifle any diplomatic fallout Wednesday from an open microphone incident in which President Barack Obama appeared to show frustration with Israel's Benjamin Netanyahu.

A top official insisted Obama had a good relationship with the Israeli prime minister, despite being party to a conversation at the G20 summit in which French President Nicolas Sarkozy called Netanyahu a "liar."

The incident, first reported by a French blog, turned into an embarrassment for the White House and ammunition for political critics who see Obama as too tough on Israel and in danger of losing the US Jewish vote.

Ben Rhodes, a deputy national security advisor, told reporters, that Obama had a "very close working relationship with Prime Minister Netanyahu. They speak very regularly."

"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 US and Israel share a deep security relationship but also a values-based relationship."

Rhodes said that Obama had spent time at the summit last week in France lobbying for the US position that the Palestinians should not seek recognition in international diplomatic organizations in an effort to win statehood.

That push seems to have been the impetus for Obama's conversation with Sarkozy, in which he apparently complained at France's support for the Palestinians joining UNESCO.

The private conversation was overheard by a number of journalists after it was inadvertently transmitted over a system used for translation, media website Arret sur Images reported.

Sarkozy was reported as saying of Netanyahu to Obama in French: "I can't stand him anymore, he's a liar."

"You may be sick of him, but me, I have to deal with him every day," Obama replied in comments that were translated into French.

A number of journalists contacted by AFP confirmed hearing the remarks.

The encounter provided an opening for Obama's possible Republican general election opponent Mitt Romney.

"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," the Republican front runner said.

Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, also expressed concern.

"We are deeply disappointed and saddened by this decidedly un-presidential exchange between Presidents Sarkozy and Obama," he said.

"President Obama's response to Mr. Sarkozy implies that he agrees with the French leader," he said, and called on the White House to reassure Israel the relationship remained on a sure footing.

Obama and Netanyahu have had a testy relationship, as Obama has pushed for breakthroughs in the Middle East and Netanyahu's government has signed off on a string of settlement building decisions which have angered Palestinians.

The White House has argued that Obama is staunchly pro-Israel, vowing to block a Palestinian drive for statehood in the United Nations, upping US defense sales to Israel and intervening in a siege at the Israeli embassy in Cairo.

At the United Nations in October, Netanyahu said that Obama deserved "a badge of honor" for his support of the Jewish state.

© 2011 AFP

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