The White House trotted out Ben Rhodes, the Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications to try and repair the damage done by President Obama after he was caught on a “hot mic” complaining about having to deal with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
ABC News’ White House correspondent Jake Tapper tried to get some clarification from the administration yesterday’s press briefing.
Tapper: I may bank off the comment directly on the hot-mic comments from the G20, but I wanted to ask Ben: Abraham Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League issued a statement yesterday, and obviously a lot of Republicans have also, but I’ll — without getting into the politics of this, Foxman said that he was “deeply disappointed and saddened by the decidedly un-presidential exchange between Presidents Sarkozy and Obama. President Obama’s response to Mr. Sarkozy implies that he agrees with the French leader when he called Netanyahu a liar.” And I was just wondering if you could explain the conversation from the President’s perspective, and his opinion about President Sarkozy’s calling Prime Minister Netanyahu a liar?
Mr. Rhodes: Well, I mean, in the first instance I’ll echo what Jay said in that I don’t think we’re going to get into the details of this conversation. I think what I will say that’s important to note is, first of all, throughout the course of the G20 — even as we were dealing with a pressing economic crisis — the President was personally engaging foreign leaders to review his opinion that he opposed Palestinian membership in U.N. agencies. He personally did register his view, not just with President Sarkozy but with other leaders, that this was counterproductive, that unilateral Palestinian efforts at the U.N., whether it was to seek full U.N. membership or membership in U.N. agencies, was counterproductive. And so I think it speaks to his commitment to Israel’s security that he was doing that even in the context of a very pressing and urgent economic crisis.
As relates to Israel, he has 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 in. That’s rooted in the fact that the U.S. and Israel share a deep security relationship but also a values-based relationship. And I think our actions speak very loudly, which is that this President has taken security cooperation with Israel to unprecedented levels, he has stood up time and again against delegitimization of Israel — whether it was the Goldstone report, the flotilla or, of course most recently, Palestinian efforts to seek unilateral measures at the U.N. to shortcut negotiations.
So our record speaks very clearly about the President’s commitment to Israel, and he, again, I think has maintained a very close working relationship with Prime Minister Netanyahu where they’ve been able to communicate clearly on these issues. And insofar as these matters — insofar as the Middle East came up at all at the G20, it was President Obama raising with other leaders his opposition to Palestinian membership in U.N. agencies.
Tapper: I understand that’s what you want to talk about, but the other part of it is Sarkozy insulting Netanyahu and President Obama saying something along the lines of, “You think it’s bad — I have to deal with him every day.” Again, getting into that close working relationship that you just referred to, I suppose, I’m wondering, has there been any attempt by the White House or the State Department to reach out to Netanyahu to explain this away, to smooth it over? It’s obviously been covered quite a bit in the European media and the Israeli media.
Mr. Rhodes: Again, what we have here is reports of a private conversation that we’re not going to comment on the details of. We communicate at a variety of levels with the Israeli government on a near-daily basis, so I think it’s certainly the case that we’re in contact with them about a lot of pressing issues.
I think, frankly, in the context of the coming days we’ll be consulting with them about not just the ongoing issues at the U.N. but about a very important IAEA report on the Iranian nuclear program. So it’s certainly true that we’re going to be in close contact at a variety of levels with the Israeli government, and I think that speaks to the depth of our relationship.
Obama’s relationship with Netanyahu has been strained ever since he called for Israel to return to the pre-1967 borders so that a Palestinian state could be created.
That raised the ire of pro-Israel supporters from both parties and called into question Obama’s commitment to Israel. And yesterday’s report of the “hot mic” comments he made to French President Nicholas Sarkozy at last week’s G-20 meeting only reinforced the viewpoint that Obama doesn’t see Israel as being that important to his administration despite the overwhelming support for Democrats from Jewish voters.
The lack of a quick apology from the president is all these voters need to know about he feels about Israel and Netanyahu and what his Middle East policies are likely to look like should he win re-election next year.
Tapper deserves credit for bringing this up and exposing how the White House is trying to worm its way out of it.