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Careless whisper: what Obama and Sarkozy’s slip means for Israel

President Obama and French leader Nicolas Sarkozy were caught speaking of Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in unflattering terms at the G20 summit. AAP/Stefan Rousseau

The recent Cannes G20 meeting was ostensibly about saving Europe from falling into economic oblivion.

But a frank exchange between US President Barack Obama and French President Nicolas Sarkozy, caught on a still live microphone, regarding Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has grabbed far more attention.

After Sarkozy bemoaned what he saw as “lies” by Netanyahu Obama, with unmistakable exasperation in his tone, replied that “You’re sick of him? I have to work with him every day.”

The nations of the West, in particular the US, regularly declare their strong support for Israel. But do these public declarations mask a growing private frustration at an intransigent Israeli government? And could Israel be at risk of overplaying its hand and facing isolation in a rapidly changing region and world?

The Conversation spoke with Monash University international relations expert Benjamin Macqueen about what Obama and Sarkozy’s exchange illustrates about their respectives nations’ relationship with Israel and the realpolitik at play in the long-running Israeli/Palestine conflict.

Have we seen what the US and France really think of Israel now?

I think the French, definitely. I don’t think there are any real surprises in terms of what the French think of Israel, or what the French government thinks of Israel generally.

The candour with which Sarkozy spoke is certainly an embarrassment but I don’t think people are taken aback.

I think it is interesting on the American side in that Obama was expressing frustration with Netanyahu but I was interested in the subtext of “I have to talk to him every day”. It sounds like he doesn’t really have much choice in the matter so it is kind of by the by what Obama thinks of him personally, he still has to deal with him.

Is Israel an unnecessary distraction for a West in economic crisis?

I would tend to agree. What has happened over the last 12 months has been really worrying for Israel and Israel’s strategic position in terms of the Arab Spring in particular, global economic crises. I think all of these things fold in to create an air of uncertainty and a questioning of priorities which when you get a provocative and seemingly needlessly provocative leader like Netanyahu, depending on your perspective and one could make the case in that regard, the brass tacks conclusion you come to is that Israel could be more trouble than it is worth.

This is a view that has been aired by people across both sides of the aisle in American politics in questioning the strategic value [of supporting Israel], particularly the Kissinger style foreign policy realists in the Republican party.

This is the old view that nations don’t have friends, just interests?

Exactly and if you weigh it up in a cost/benefit analysis, US national and strategic interest isn’t served by maintaining unquestioning support for not so much the state of Israel, but this particular Israeli government and their policies.

That is where the personalisation of this frustration toward Netanyahu does have an edge. As I mentioned before I don’t think it is terribly surprising. It could work for as a positive for Obama. Everyone knew the frustration was there for Obama, at least now we can acknowledge it and move on.

The Palestinian push for statehood has complicated life for the US and Arab allies. AAP/Alef Sahad

To give this some historical subtext, hasn’t there been a strong tradition in a wing of the Republican party where alliances lay with oil producing Arab countries like Saudi Arabia rather than Israel? Could we see, perhaps after the 2012 election, a change in US focus?

It is a very good question. There is a tension there that isn’t often recognised and was kind of marginalised under the George W Bush administration. Traditionally the strongest supporters of Israel have been the Democrats particularly as a result of electoral strength in areas where there’s large Jewish voting populations in New York and in Florida and a few other places.

The Republican party has a history of close association with oil producing states down to the point of the Bush family themselves having very close personal links with the Saudi royal family and the Emiratis.

They are able to marginalise that tension in a way because there is kind of a unspoken congruence of interest at the moment between the Saudis and the Israelis on a lot of issues. The Saudis and the Israelis have similar concerns on the type of opposition that is floating around the region, quite radical anti-establishment Islamist style movements and also this notion of radical Shiaism tied up with Iranian foreign policy. Both have similar interests in wanting to counter this, get rid of this trend.

However the changing landscape in the region, the challenging of regimes would put the Saudis in a tricky situation. Anecdotally I know there has been a general acceptance on the street in Saudi Arabia where they say “we kind of know that our government talks to Israel”.

They do certain things, Hamas is a branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, both the Mubarak regime in Egypt and the Saudis were quite afraid of this movement and would co-operate (with Israel) on these areas. However with tensions they don’t want to be seen or perceived to be doing as such.

The change in that regard I see as putting greater strain on the effort to try and marry the ideological support for Israel in the Republican party with a historical interest/resource based relationship with the oil producing states in the Middle East.

It is really irreconcilable. They are able to manage it now but in the long term I think it is going to splinter. A lot of it depends on which way the Republican party goes. If it goes down the route of Rick Perry and Michele Bachmann then we may see a range of policies aimed at trying to cut oil-producing states in the Middle East loose and a reliance on very costly heavy tar production in Canada and Brazil.

If it goes down the Jon Huntsman route, then we‘d probably see the marginalisation of slavish adherence to the Israeli foreign policy position. There is a lot of uncertainty around it but the upshot is that it is an unresolved issue.

In terms of France, they were a close ally of Israel for a long time and helped them build a nuclear capability and provided state of the art warplanes, but then after the 1967 war turned their focus to the Arab states. Where do they now stand in these matters?

It is an interesting role that the French have played. They were close to both Israel and to the pre-revolutionary Iranian government in their nuclear technology as well.

The French are always quite overt with being directed by specific interests and in this regard it is strategic and resources based. They also see an opening within the EU to take a much more primary position in the formation of EU foreign policy and this issue is an issue where these things can come together.

They can present themselves as an alternative to the United States given the proximity of the United States to Israel, someone who has good relationships with both sides, someone who summons considerable gravitas on the international stage, but all this can play into securing better relationships with oil producing states.

Could France lead an EU working in partnership with the US to bring peace to Israel and Palestine? AAP/Lionel Bonaventure

Would France also perceive that they have just had a “win” in Libya, the French played a very big role in that, and that has put them back on centre stage again?

Yes. One could say that this slip by Sarkozy might portray them as a bit amateurish but I don’t think it will do much to hurt the French position. I don’t think anyone was fooling themselves that the French have any great love for Netanyahu and Avigdor Lieberman in the Israeli government.

It enables the French to spin the line that they will be a much more honest broker and that they can be much more frank than the US in this discussion. The French are definitely making a play for a more influential role and I think it is one that might actually reap some rewards. What that actually looks like is a different matter because it is only really the United States that can force Israel to sign any formal peace agreement.

A US/EU co-operative effort might be more viable now.

You said it has been a bad year for Israel. We are now seeing a wider international isolation of Israel with the BDS movement and the various UN votes on Palestinian statehood. This won’t lead to an independent Palestine anytime soon but it is increasing Israel’s isolation. Could we see Israel ending up like apartheid South Africa?

I don’t know about full isolation. There is the difficulty of the role of certain actors among the Palestinians, namely Hamas and their quite brutal tactics.

There’s no Palestinian Nelson Mandela?

Yes. I’m not saying it wouldn’t be good for the Palestinians if there was one but the nature of Palestinian politics is such that the chances of figure like that emerging [are slim].

But Israel is moving toward to further isolation. Tactically, I think this is a strong move by the Palestinians in making a very strong normative argument. Israel is now constrained officially by a set parameters. Palestine is now recognised in the general assembly of the UN, it is compliant on you to act as an occupying power and all the flow on effects from that.

Those sorts of things have far more impact and would make it easier for others to act in a way to marginalise Israel as opposed to a situation where it is a discussion between self-defence and self-determination. Now it is about an occupation that is officially recognised.

That is not going to do Israel any favours but I can’t see it becoming an apartheid South Africa situation. That is in essence the reality on the ground.

What about a sporting boycott? There is already one in small effect but could we see Israeli teams being banned from the Champion’s League and so on?

I think acts like that could happen. I don’t think we will see full marginalisation. The boycott of Israel is in the track 2 style of activism where universities refuse to allow visiting scholars from Israel and all these sorts of actions.

It is very controversial and it is also tied up with discussions about anti-Semitism which is still a reality in many countries. That is a different situation to what was happening in South Africa. All of this stuff together, it doesn’t help Israel, it doesn’t help Israel normalise.

I’ve always been sceptical that considerably large portions of the Israeli body politic actually want normalisation, they prefer to exist in a permanent state of war and benefit from it, as do a large section of the Palestinian political elite.

The recent protests in Israel are a real sign that the general population don’t benefit greatly from this and want that changed. All of this feeds into uncertainty for Israel which is not a welcome development for them.

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