Commentary, National Commentary

Putin and Netanyahu: Why Bad Things Happen to Bad Leaders

By Thomas L. Friedman of The New York Times

It is shocking to me how much Russian President Vladimir Putin and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have in common these days: Both see themselves as great strategic chess players in a world where, they think, everyone else knows only how to play checkers. And yet both completely misread the world in which they were operating.

In fact, they misread it so badly that it looks as if each is not playing chess or checkers but rather Russian roulette — all by themselves. Russian roulette is not meant to be played alone, but alone they both are.

Putin thought that he could capture Kyiv in a few days and thus — at a very low cost — use Russian expansion into Ukraine to forever blunt European Union and NATO expansion. He might have gotten close but for the fact that his isolation and self-delusion resulted in his getting his own army wrong, Ukraine’s army wrong, the NATO allies wrong, President Joe Biden wrong, the Ukrainian people wrong, Sweden wrong, Finland wrong, Poland wrong, Germany wrong and the European Union wrong. In the process, he’s made Russia into an energy colony of China and a beggar for Iran’s drones.

For someone who has been at the top of the Kremlin since 1999, that’s a whole lot of wrong.

Netanyahu and his coalition thought they could pull off a quick judicial coup, disguised as a legal “reform,” that would enable them to exploit the narrowest of election victories — roughly 30,000 votes out of some 4.7 million — to allow Netanyahu & Co. to govern without having to worry about the only source of restraint on politicians in Israel’s system: its independent judiciary and Supreme Court.

Interestingly, at the first formal meeting of Netanyahu’s Cabinet, in December, he listed his government’s four priorities: blocking Iran, restoring personal security for every Israeli, addressing the cost of living and the shortage of housing, and widening the circle of peace with surrounding Arab states. He didn’t mention upending the courts, apparently hoping to slip it past the public.

Wrong. A vast majority of the Israeli public got it immediately and responded with the largest public backlash to any proposed legislation in the country’s history.

The opposition is now throughout Israeli society and beyond: Netanyahu got his army wrong, his technology startup community wrong, Biden wrong and, polls show, most Israeli voters wrong. He got the base of his own party wrong, too: While there have been massive, broad-based protests every week against his judicial overhaul, there hasn’t been a single large-scale grassroots demonstration in support.

Netanyahu even got some of his most ardent conservative American Jewish supporters wrong. Miriam Adelson, writing in Israel Hayom, the right-wing Israeli newspaper founded by her billionaire late husband, Sheldon, decried the way in which the prime minister was trying to “dash” through such a significant change. It raises “questions about the root objectives and concern that this is a hasty, injudicious and irresponsible move,” she wrote, adding, “Bad motivations never bring about good outcomes.”

For someone serving as prime minister for the sixth time, that’s a whole a lot of wrong.

So, what comes next? You guessed it — both Netanyahu and Putin are blaming outside agitators and foreign funding for their problems. It’s right out of the dictators’ handbook. While Putin regularly blames the U.S. and NATO for his military failures in Ukraine, The Times of Israel reported over the weekend that Netanyahu and his family have begun hinting that the State Department is the hidden hand funding the huge protests.

The newspaper quoted a “senior government official” on Netanyahu’s recent trip to Rome — sourcing usually used by the prime minister to hide his identity — as saying: “There is an organized center from which all the demonstrators branch out in an orderly manner. Who finances the transportation, the flags, the stages? It’s clear to us.” The paper added, “Another member of the premier’s entourage confirmed that the senior official was referring to the United States.”

How could two leaders get so many things wrong, despite having been in power for so many years? The question answers itself: They’ve been in power for so many years. Each man has built up enemies and trails of alleged corruption that leave them feeling it’s rule or die.

In Netanyahu’s case, that would mean figuratively dying: He’s currently on trial on multiple corruption charges, and if convicted he could face jail time and an end to his life in politics. In Putin’s case, it could mean literally dying, at the hands of his enemies.

Netanyahu’s rule-or-die fears led him to form a coalition with two ex-convicts and a rogue’s gallery of Jewish supremacists. Many were shunned by past prime ministers — indeed, previously by Netanyahu himself — but in his desperation he had to partner with them today because he’d been abandoned by so many decent members of Likud.

Putin, alas, is well beyond coalition-building and sharing power. That was Putin 1.0 in the early 2000s. Putin 2.0, after 24 years in charge, knows that a leader like him — who has stolen as much money as he has — could never trust any successor to let him peacefully retire to his reported $1 billion mansion on the Black Sea. (His official salary is $140,000 a year.) He knows that to live or to at least live freely, he must remain president for life. So, Putin’s two greatest innovations have been poison underwear and poison-tipped umbrellas to dispense with perceived enemies.

What’s most interesting to me is how Netanyahu and Putin each misread his own military. Putin has had to increasingly rely on convicts and mercenaries to carry the brunt of his war in Ukraine, while tens of thousands of Russian men have fled abroad to escape his draft.

In Israel, air force pilots, army doctors and cyberwarriors have all warned that the Israel Defense Forces are not going to just salute an Israeli dictator. Those speaking out include three retired senior officers, led by Joab Rosenberg, a former deputy head analyst for IDF intelligence, who flew to Washington this week to try to enlist American help in stopping Netanyahu’s slow-motion coup.

As Moshe Ya’alon, a former Netanyahu defense minister and a former army chief of staff, recently told a rally in Tel Aviv: “According to my personal experience as a soldier and commander, if, God forbid, Israel will become a dictatorship, we will not have enough soldiers who will be ready to sacrifice their lives to defend the country, and it will cause an existential threat to the State of Israel. We just have to watch the poor performance of Putin’s armed forces, lacking the spirit and lacking the confidence in their dictator and his path,” to see what dictatorship does to an army.

Finally, both Putin and Netanyahu completely underestimated the speed at which the electronic herd of global investors would stampede out of their countries in the wake of their reckless behavior. According to The Financial Times’ fDi Markets database, last year only 13 foreign direct investment projects were tracked in Russia, “the lowest level since records began in 2003.”

Assaf Rappaport, a co-founder of one of the hottest Israeli startups, the $10 billion-valued cloud security firm Wiz, told me over breakfast in Washington that the Israeli tech community “could survive the Palestinian uprisings, suicide bombers and Hamas missiles on Tel Aviv.” But, economically speaking, it “can’t survive” a threat to Israel’s independent judiciary. His foreign investors just told him not to bank his latest funding round, $300 million, in Israel. Going forward, he added, more and more Israeli startups will register as Delaware companies, not Israeli ones.

One more similarity that leads to a huge difference. Putin and Netanyahu have both surrounded themselves with yes-men, party hacks and total ciphers — no one with any independent political standing or ethical backbone who can stand up and say: “What are you doing? Stop. This is wrong. Cut your losses.”

But this leads to one big difference between them.

The world is divided into more than 24 time zones. Russia alone spans 11. Israel fits into one. Putin can afford a long war of attrition in Ukraine, where he never has to admit he was mistaken. He has huge margins for his errors. Israel does not. The wisest Israeli leaders have always understood that they need to carefully guard their resources and bond with their allies — through not only shared interests but also shared values.

Yet Netanyahu’s extremist coalition is now taking on the Palestinians and Iran militarily while ignoring the wishes and values of its most important ally, the U.S. government; its most important diaspora community, American Jews; and its most important source of economic growth, foreign investors. And it’s doing all of that while dividing the Israeli people to the brink of a civil war.

It’s madness. Or, to put it differently: Russia can survive a leader who plays Russian roulette. Israel may not.