“I cannot stand him anymore,” said S. “He is a liar.”
“You’re fed up with him, but I have to deal with him every day!” added O.
At first, this seems like an innocuous and banal exchange – albeit petty – between colleagues indulging in gossip for lack of better things to discuss. The problem here is that the characters of this scene are not your average men on the street, they are the heads of state of two of the world’s most powerful countries: US President Barack Obama and French President Nicolas Sarkozy.
This sequence was reported to have taken place just after a joint press conference by these two statesmen during the G20 summit in Cannes last Thursday. After which they retired to a nearby room for what was supposed to be a private conversation. What could these two leaders be talking about behind closed doors? Could they be mapping out a better future for their people and the world at large? Not quite. Apparently, they chose to engage in petty slander unfit to their stature.
Who could the object of their disdain be? A mutual longtime political foe? A villain who oozes falsehood? A dictator? Surprisingly or not, the man in question was no other than the leader of their only real democratic ally in the combustible Middle East, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
For the haters of Netanyahu, such styled accusations will seem quite ordinary - any accusation would. What has Bibi not been accused of? Cheating? Shedding blood? Manipulating? Giving in to corruption? While Netanyahu has been accused of many a-thing, dishonesty or bad faith is probably the fault most commonly held against him. His opposition Kadima even settled for "Bibi, I don't believe him," for their last campaign slogan.
Bibi has been subjected to an unremitting campaign of character assassination ever since he stepped into politics. Since he was first elected to power, the media never missed an opportunity to expose his so-called hypocrisy to the indulgence of a broad public who took pleasure in the bashing of the unabashed right-winger.
Many reasons can be put forward for such a targeted animosity: from Netanyahu's actual political views to his powerful eloquence or sly rhetoric – depending on who is listening. In Netanyahu’s second premiership term, the Israeli media seemed more lenient towards the PM who worked hard to clean his public image and get rid of the “dishonest” title. However, the international press is still not so fond of the new Bibi and prefers sticking to its first impression – why not, the audience wants what it wants.
When asked to qualify, Netanyahu detractors often begin by summoning up the convenient doxa, arguing that it is a fashionable description, yet still no real evidence is brought to light. And if that’s not enough, they will make a general statement about Bibi’s intentions, as if they held some truth that somehow everyone else seemed oblivious to.
For example, one can argue that although he has repeatedly claimed his desire for peace with the Palestinians, his acts contradict his statements. The most convincing arguments lie in the minutia of numbers: houses constructed or destroyed, people arrested, terrorists killed, number of rockets falling – yes the latter can actually be used as a proof of Bibi’s dishonesty. The art of rhetoric – of which our defendant himself is quite adept in – serves the truth and supports a lie.
Rare are the politicians who don’t have to deal with such accusations. Pillorying statesmen is a pastime for democracies. They as well as most politicians make for easy targets. They are often accused of many misdemeanors and wrongdoings – sometimes rightly so. The political arena is a fertile ground for lies – and slander.
Danger of demonizationThe trouble here is that we are rarely exposed to slander at such an official level. One would expect more deference from these two statesmen when talking about their Israeli counterpart, a man who studied in the same university as Obama, who was a captain in Israel’s elite Special Forces, and who was elected twice through a democratic process. If anything, his recent gestures towards his neighbors are a token of his willingness to come to an understanding – quite a change from his oft-sported status quo stance.
In fact, these gestures – the 10-month settlement freeze, the release of hundreds of Palestinian prisoners, including some with blood on their hands, and the perpetual hand outstretched to Mahmoud Abbas – present a far different picture of Bibi earnestly seeking a tough peace.
This “secret” conversation about the Israeli PM is a dangerous precedent, especially when the character assassination bears the echoes of the demonizing accusations spread with such success during one of the darkest pages of history and still a fixture in the 21st Century. To the watchful mind, it recalls the horrendous epithets thrown at Jews by Nazi ideology, the “liar” libel being the first slander in a long line of verbal humiliation that led the way to actual dehumanization and massacre.
Hearing today’s most influential and powerful leaders capitalizing on such a prejudice carries the danger of conflation, double standard and demonization which can lead to a slippery slope of unfounded hatred.
Of course, Netanyahu was not called a liar because he is a Jew. So why was he called a liar? What did he do to deserve such an epithet? Was it the same thing that he did to deserve being ushered through the back door of the White House in early 2010? What lie/s does Mr. Sarkozy speak of? The qualification for this humiliation was not given, nor did Obama, a trained lawyer, seem to require one – quite the contrary.
Our leaders bear a great responsibility in the accusations they decide to make in public or in private - these have real consequences. This unfortunate but dubious eavesdropping has had the merit of exposing if not a lie, an embarrassing political hypocrisy which demands to be redressed.
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