Before leaving office, Obama claimed Netanyahu ‘subscribes to Putinism’

In newly declassified remarks to reporters, then-outgoing US president placed ex-Israeli PM in same basket with Erdogan, Duterte and Trump in war of ideas against liberal democracy

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US bureau chief

Russian President Vladimir Putin (right) with a bouquet of flowers and then-prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Kremlin in Moscow on January 30, 2020. (Maxim Shemetov/Pool/AFP)
Russian President Vladimir Putin (right) with a bouquet of flowers and then-prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Kremlin in Moscow on January 30, 2020. (Maxim Shemetov/Pool/AFP)

During his final week in office, former US president Barak Obama expressed concern that then-Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and several other conservative world leaders had to various degrees subscribed to “Putinism” in a war of ideas against liberal democracy.

“What I worry about most is, there is a war right now of ideas — more than any hot war — and it is between Putinism — which, by the way, is subscribed to, at some level, by [Turkish President Recep Tayyip] Erdogan or Netanyahu or [then-Philippine president Rodrigo] Duterte and [then-incoming US president Donald] Trump — and a vision of a liberal market-based democracy that has all kinds of flaws and is subject to all kinds of legitimate criticism, but on the other hand is sort of responsible for most of the human progress we’ve seen over the last 50, 75 years,” Obama said in an off-the-record, January 2017 conversation with reporters, which was declassified by the Justice Department last week.

The concern was one of several voiced by the then-outgoing president during the wide-ranging discussion. Obama lamented how the “liberal order [in Europe was] being chipped,” at the time, warning that the trend would only continue if the US does not continue raising democratic ideals, such as human rights on the world stage.

“If we’re not there initiating ourselves, then everybody goes into their own sort of nationalist, mercantilist corners, and it will be a meaner, tougher world, and the prospects for conflict that arise will be greater,” Obama is quoted as having said in the transcript obtained by Bloomberg.

The former president acknowledged that “sometimes there’s hypocrisy” in the US’s dealings with authoritarian regimes such as Saudi Arabia or China all while raising the importance of defending human rights as a critical American value. However, he said his fear was that under a Trump presidency, concern for such liberal, democratic ideals would be tossed aside entirely.

Obama’s folding of Netanyahu alongside populist leaders such as Erdogan, Duterte and Trump and even claiming the Israeli premier has a similar worldview to that of Russian President Vladimir Putin appeared to be a further extension of what was already known to be the poor standing Netanyahu holds in the former Democratic president’s eyes.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and US President Barack Obama in the White House on November 9, 2015 (Raphael Ahren/Times of Israel)

Obama, Netanyahu and their respective staff quarreled regularly during their overlapping eight years in office, as Obama sought to advance diplomatic agreements between Israel and the Palestinians and between Iran and world powers — both of which were largely opposed by the then-premier.

Netanyahu has also made a point of boasting his close relationship with Putin in recent years and the Likud party even hung up a massive billboard over a main highway that featured the two leaders shaking hands in an effort to demonstrate the Israeli leader’s stature on the world stage, during the 2019 elections.

Netanyahu accuses his successors of mismanaging Israel’s relationship with Russia, suggesting that Jerusalem should take a more neutral stance regarding Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.

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