Page last updated at 13:06 GMT, Tuesday, 30 June 2009 14:06 UK

French-Israeli spat over comments

President Nicolas Sarkozy welcomes Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Elysee Palace
Mr Netanyahu was making his first trip to Europe since taking office

Israel's foreign ministry has accused France of unacceptable meddling in its internal affairs over a reported comment by President Nicolas Sarkozy.

He was quoted by Israeli TV calling for Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who leads a far-right party, to be sacked.

The plea, which has not been confirmed nor denied by officials, was allegedly made during a meeting with Israeli premier Benjamin Netanyahu last week.

Israeli Arab leaders have accused the foreign minister of anti-Arab racism.

Ahmed Tibi, a member of the Israeli parliament for the United Arab List, welcomed President Sarkozy's comments, saying: "The international community has started to absorb the danger of the fascism" coming from Mr Lieberman.

You need to get rid of this man... You need to remove him from this position
Attributed to President Nicolas Sarkozy

However, the deputy leader of Mr Lieberman's Yisrael Beiteinu party called the comments "grave and unacceptable".

Mr Lieberman's office said: "If this report is correct then this is an unacceptable interference in internal Israeli affairs."

Mr Netanyahu's office issued a statement saying the PM voiced his "full confidence" in Mr Lieberman during a meeting with ambassadors from European Union countries.

'Privately pragmatic'

Israeli Channel Two reported that President Sarkozy advised Mr Netanyahu to "get rid" of Mr Lieberman during their meeting in Paris.

He also suggested that his predecessor Tzipi Livni be restored to the post, according to the report.

Avigdor Lieberman
Mr Lieberman's Yisrael Beiteinu party came third in Israel's 2009 elections

"You need to get rid of this man... You need to remove him from this position," Mr Sarkozy reportedly said, to which Mr Netanyahu replied that "in private [Mr Lieberman] is pragmatic".

Mr Sarkozy then reportedly said France's far-right leader Jean-Marie Le Pen was also a pleasant person in private.

Infrastructure Minister Uzi Landau, who belongs to Yisrael Beiteinu, told Israeli army radio: "It is hard to believe that the leader of a friendly country would express himself in such a way."

"If I was the prime minister, and those statements were made in my presence, I would have banged on the table and protested. That is how a prime minister who preserves his country's dignity should behave."

Avigdor Lieberman has been a controversial figure in Israeli politics and his appointment as foreign minister after the February 2009 election was received with caution internationally.

He is known for a hard-line stance on peace negotiations with the Palestinians and remarks about Israeli Arabs that have been widely seen as racist.

He has also been a staunch defender of Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank, where he has a private residence.

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