Netanyahu is playing a dangerous game

"The problem is that Benjamin Netanyahu seems not to understand the style of leader he is up against in the White House."

Netanyahu and Trump (photo credit: REUTERS)
Netanyahu and Trump
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Next week’s visit by Prime Minister Netanyahu to Washington should worry anyone who cares about the fate of the State of Israel and of liberal democracy more generally. The problem is that Benjamin Netanyahu seems not to understand the style of leader he is up against in the White House: someone who seeks domination rather than to promote principle.
To clarify what I mean, let’s review the main ingredients for being a “principled leader” of a collective enterprise: strategy, autonomy and voice.
A strategy gives direction to a collective enterprise. If the strategy is based on a clear and compelling set of principles for contributing value to society, it becomes a magnet that facilitates the recruitment and retention of people whose skills and personal goals align well with that strategy.
Moreover, these well-matched employees will work harder for the enterprise if they are entrusted with substantial autonomy, responsible for creatively adapting the larger strategy to their particular functions or regions. Finally, top managers can only see so much from their perch. But if perspectives from throughout the enterprise are solicited, the strategy can evolve with the times and morale is boosted.
This recipe for principled leadership sounds compelling but it is hard to execute.
A fundamental challenge is the problem of loyalty: This challenge looms large in a crisis when there is no time to get “buy in” from everyone. More generally, there are often legal, moral or communication barriers to the full sharing of information behind a decision. Any leader needs to be confident that employees will be willing to check their beliefs and preferences to a certain extent and cast their lot with her.
Otherwise, there is no collective enterprise, just a cacophony of individual voices. This concern was captured by Satan’s argument in the book of Job (1:9-11): Job acts like a loyal servant of God only because it is a mutually beneficial partnership (it’s not “for free”); but he would be disloyal if God’s actions harmed his interests or contradicted his beliefs about what is just.
The problem of loyalty is general, but it can be minimized if leaders generally stay in the background, recognizing that they are curators of something larger than themselves and that they will elicit greater employee initiative and creativity if they hold back from intervening regularly.
But what if a CEO thinks – or wants others to think – that he is indispensable? Well, then the problem of loyalty becomes that much more acute, and Satan’s test looms large: How can I be sure people will really follow me unless they clearly act against their own interests and beliefs? This is tough to pull off, but a Faustian bargain can smooth the way: If you are willing to compromise on your interests or beliefs, I will offer you something that you can’t – and maybe shouldn’t – get from anyone else.
And once you’ve compromised yourself publicly, there is no going back: no one else will touch you.
This strategy of domination – familiar from the mafia don, the gang leader, the authoritarian ruler – is the antithesis of principled leadership.
It is obvious how this applies to Donald “I alone can fix it” Trump. In business and in politics, his overriding objective is to demonstrate his personal indispensability; his would-be strategy as president is inscrutable and ever-changing; he provides others with opportunities to applaud but not to engage in meaningful dialogue; and his main approach to eliciting loyalty is to get people to commit to beliefs (e.g., that it is okay for a presidential candidate not to release his taxes) or values (e.g., that it is acceptable to grope women) they would otherwise reject, in return for empty promises.
And when he reneges on such promises, what can they say: that they were fools? That they were opportunists? We have been watching this for months in the US, and we witnessed it from Netanyahu last week. Not only did Netanyahu abase himself by praising Trump’s Mexican wall, but he was silent when the Trump regime deliberately de-Judaizaized the Holocaust, and doubled-down when given a chance to recant. This was a dog-whistle to Trump’s neo-Nazi supporters. And in the same stroke, it tested the loyalty of the Israeli government: Would it acquiesce to a statement it would otherwise have condemned (after all, Barack Obama was criticized for focusing too much on the Holocaust and its Jewishness!)? The depressing answer: yes.
But Netanyahu misunderstands Trump’s game. On Monday, Satan might have questioned Netanyahu’s loyalty: He only played along in return for an American embassy in Jerusalem and a green light on settlement construction. So a test of loyalty was in order: By the end of the week, not only had Trump put the embassy move on ice but he suddenly suggested that new settlements “may not be helpful.” The response from Netanyahu: silence again. After all, what could he say at that point? And now consider this week’s settlement regulation law and the international opprobrium in its wake. Whatever one makes of this law, it surely makes Trump’s support even more essential: Only one unprincipled egomaniac now stands between Israel and international pariah status.
In today’s world, principled leadership must begin by recognizing that the most powerful country in the history of the world is run by a man who has the leadership style of a gangster. It is folly to bargain with such a person, since he sees your needs as weaknesses he can exploit to increase your dependence on him. The only course is to resist, by working with other liberal democracies to preserve the values Trump seeks to destroy. It also means resisting the temptation to recklessly pursue a right wing agenda that only Trump pretends to love – for the moment.
The author is the Alvin J. Siteman Professor of Entrepreneurship and Strategy at the MIT Sloan School of Management, where he is deputy dean. He is also president of the Young Israel of Brookline in Brookline, Massachusetts. His opinions are personal views and do not represent either institution. He tweets at @ewzucker.
Yaakov Katz’s column will return next week.