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November 20, 2011

If Netanyahu Lies, Why do we keep listening?

Sharmine Narwani

More by this author...

For Middle East watchers, the revelation that a major head of state called Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu a "liar" is, well, not exactly news. French president Nicholas Sarkozy needs to get in line behind the many other politicians who have thrown up their arms over Netanyahu's unusual - even for politics - propensity for duplicity.

Former Clinton White House Spokesman Joe Lockhart, in his book "The Truth About Camp David" calls the Israeli prime minister, "one of the most obnoxious individuals you're going to come into - just a liar and a cheat.  He could open his mouth and you could have no confidence that anything that came out of it was the truth."

The latest brouhaha over Netanyahu's character emerged at the G-20 meeting in Cannes last week, when reporters unintentionally caught three minutes of candid conversation between Sarkozy and US President Barack Obama. Here is the conversation according to the New York Times:

"I cannot stand him," Mr. Sarkozy was quoted as saying. "He is a liar." Mr. Obama is reported to have replied, "You're fed up with him, but I have to deal with him every day!"

My reaction was two-fold.

Firstly, why does the president of the United States have to "deal" with Netanyahu "every day?" Israel's strategic value to the United States has never been less apparent at a time when its pariah value is on the rise globally. In 2010, this thinking entered the political mainstream when CENTCOM's then- commander General David Petraeus and US Vice President Joe Biden publicly suggested that the Jewish state may even be a liability in certain vital policy areas.

Nobody underlines the liability of our alliance with Israel better than Chas Freeman - Obama's choice to head the National Intelligence Council - who was very publicly opposed by the Israel lobby during his nomination process.

During a Nixon Center speech in July 2010, Freeman explained:

"[Israel] is so estranged from everyone else in the Middle East that no neighboring country will accept flight plans that originate in or transit it. Israel is therefore useless in terms of support for American power projection. It has no allies other than us. It has developed no friends. Israeli participation in our military operations would preclude the cooperation of many others... The need to protect Israel from mounting international indignation about its behavior continues to do grave damage to our global and regional standing. It has severely impaired our ties with the world's 1.6 billion Muslims. These costs to our international influence, credibility, and leadership are, I think, far more serious than the economic and other burdens of the relationship."

But Obama isn't the only US president to bemoan the constant need to coddle both Israel and its irritating prime minister, in particular. Scroll back to Bill Clinton's presidency, which coincided with Netanyahu's first gig as head of state...

According to ex-special envoy to the Middle East Aaron David Miller, Clinton was so agitated by Netanyahu during their first meeting in 1996, he exploded: "Who the fuck does he think he is? Who's the fucking superpower here?"

Barely a year later, Clinton had to personally wrest from Netanyahu an antidote for the toxin used by Israeli agents in their assassination attempt on Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal. "I cannot deal with this man. He is impossible," Clinton allegedly said in reference to Netanyahu, who initially lied about his involvement in the murder plot.

But these cannot possibly compare to Netanyahu's big "gotcha" moment where he is caught on camera telling a settler family that he deliberately deceived his partners in peace over the Oslo Accords:

Woman: The Oslo Accords are a disaster.

Netanyahu: Yes. You know that and I knew that...The people [nation] has to know... What were the Oslo Accords? The Oslo Accords, which the Knesset signed, I was asked, before the elections: "Will you act according to them?" and I answered: "yes, subject to mutuality and limiting the retreats." "But how do you intend to limit the retreats?" "I'll give such interpretation to the Accords that will make it possible for me to stop this galloping to the '67 [armistice] lines. How did we do it?

Narrator: The Oslo Accords stated at the time that Israel would gradually hand over territories to the Palestinians in three different pulses, unless the territories in question had settlements or military sites. This is where Netanyahu found a loophole.

Netanyahu: No one said what defined military sites. Defined military sites, I said, were security zones. As far as I'm concerned, the Jordan Valley is a defined military site.

Woman: Right [laughs]...The Beit She'an Valley.

Netanyahu: How can you tell? How can you tell? But then the question came up of just who would define what Defined Military Sites were. I received a letter - to my and to Arafat, at the same time - which said that Israel, and only Israel, would be the one to define what those are, the location of those military sites and their size. Now, they did not want to give me that letter, so I did not give the Hebron Agreement. I stopped the government meeting, I said: "I'm not signing." Only when the letter came, in the course of the meeting, to my and to Arafat, only then did I sign the Hebron Agreement. Or rather, ratify it, it had already been signed. Why does this matter? Because at that moment I actually stopped the Oslo Accord."

Is this why Bill Clinton in September admitted that it was Netanyahu, and not the Palestinians, who killed the peace process?

I have to admit a personal interest in Netanyahu's lies, the subject of one of my very first Huffington Post pieces in 2009: "Netanyahu's Shame and the Fiction He Weaves." I have met the man and caught him in a lie back in the early 90s when he was still a deputy in the foreign ministry - this one was about Soviet immigrants and East Jerusalem settlements. One notices this man over other politicians: Netanyahu is smarmy through and through – Ariel Sharon felt avuncular in comparison.

But let's go back to the Sarkozy-Obama conversation for a moment. While Mideast veterans are well versed in the duplicitous shenanigans of Israel's current prime minister; the general public is probably not. This was an important admission by two staunch allies of Israel. It is not just Netanyahu they cover for - he is just a symptom of a long-ingrained habit of providing cover for Israel's many, many myths, narratives and fairytales.

"This was a swamp, we made it a garden. There were no inhabitants here before the Jews arrived. Palestinians are terrorists, they teach their children to become suicide bombers, they have no value for life," etc. The big one today is that although Israel tries, Palestinians don't want peace. Columbia University's Joseph Massad exposes these systemic untruths in a prescient article published recently on Al Jazeera - a must-read for anyone genuinely interested in Israel's fact-building industry.

But here's my second reaction: If Netanyahu lies and our leaders know it, why should we believe anything he says about Israel's intentions for peace, Iran's nuclear aspirations, Hamas terrorism, or anything else for that matter?

The guy's a liar. Time to take away his platform.

Sharmine Narwani, Senior Associate, St. Antony's College, Oxford University

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