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(photo credit: AP [file])
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu told Europe's ambassadors to Israel on Tuesday that he had full confidence in Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, a day after it was reported that French President Nicolas Sarkozy had urged Netanyahu during their meeting last week to replace Lieberman with Tzipi Livni.
Netanyahu, who addressed more than 20 European ambassadors in Jerusalem, said that it was important for him, in light of the publication of Sarkozy's comments, to stress that he had full confidence in Lieberman.
He invited Lieberman to attend the gathering, but the foreign minister declined.
According to a statement put out by Netanyahu's office, Netanyahu said he knows that Lieberman is fully committed to peace and security, and that he is an "important part of the democratically elected government of Israel."
Netanyahu said he consulted with Lieberman before delivering his address at Bar-Ilan University last month, and that Lieberman will "play an important role in carrying out the policy that was presented at Bar-Ilan."
Lieberman, meanwhile, instructed his associates and MKs not to respond to the comments beyond the statement that his spokesman issued on Monday night condemning Sarkozy.
That statement said that if the words attributed to Sarkozy were correct, they represented a "grave and unacceptable" development.
Sarkozy reportedly told Netanyahu that he needed to "get rid of" Lieberman. He then dismissed Netanyahu's reported comment that the foreign minister sounds different in private, by saying that even Jean Marie Le Pen, the founder of the far-right National Front in France, also was a nice person in private.
Neither Sarkozy's office nor the French Foreign Ministry issued any response to the reports, something diplomatic officials in Jerusalem said was an effort to "play down" the story.
These officials said that Lieberman was just the last of a long line of world leaders Sarkozy has criticized in private conversations, including Spanish Prime Minister JosÃ© Luis RodrÃguez Zapatero, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and US President Barack Obama.
According to diplomatic officials, Israeli Ambassador to France Danny Shek, was told before Netanyahu's visit to France not to send a summary of the meetings to the Foreign Ministry, but rather only to the Prime Minister's Office, because of a fear that the contents would be leaked.
It was unreasonable, the officials said, to expect Shek to then call Lieberman by phone and relate what the French president said about him.
Lieberman's No. 2 on the Israel Beiteinu list, Uzi Landau, slammed Sarkozy for his comments, and in the process also appeared to criticize Netanyahu in an interview with Army Radio from Kazakhstan.
"It's difficult for me to believe that a leader of a friendly country can make such remarks, but were I the prime minister, and such comments were made in my presence, I would bang on the table and protest," he said. "That's how a prime minister should conduct himself to preserve his country's honor."
Later, in an interview with Radio Kol Chai, Landau added that it was "a scandal that the leader of a foreign country intervened in such a vile and blatant manner in Israel's internal affairs."
Other right-wing MKs went further in their criticism of Sarkozy.
National Union MK Michael Ben-Ari called the French president a "frog eater" and said he shouldn't get involved in Israel's affairs.
Speaking from the Knesset rostrum, Habayit Hayehudi MK Uri Orbach said to Sarkozy, "since you don't understand Hebrew or manners, I will say in French: 'Mr. President, nobody asked you'."
Even Kadima MKs defended Lieberman. MK Marina Solodkin said that had Sarkozy taken the time to meet him when he visited France, he would have thought differently of him. She accused French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner of "poisoning Sarkozy's mind" on Lieberman.
"Sarkozy crossed a red line from friendship to being patronizing," said Kadima MK Majallie Whbee, who is a former deputy foreign minister. "The president of France will not decide who our foreign minister will be. The government must protest to the French government."
But MKs farther to the Left said they agreed with Sarkozy, and that the incident proved how much damage Netanyahu did to the country by appointing Lieberman foreign minister.
"Lieberman is bad for Israel and I don't need the president of France to tell me that," Meretz head Haim Oron said.