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Globe and Mail columnist Doug Saunders.The Globe and Mail

Both men had held their countries' highest political office since 2009. Both are former covert fighters originally known for their bravery in conflict and later for their ruthless political stealth. Both have ruled fraught, racially divided countries that are considered international symbols of both liberation and inequality. Both have enjoyed opulent lifestyles. Both were accused of serious corruption this week; both vehemently deny those accusations.

Jacob Zuma and Benjamin Netanyahu followed different trajectories. Mr. Zuma, the former South African president, resigned on Wednesday, provoking clamorous jubilation from South Africans, after his African National Congress threatened to hold a non-confidence vote against their own leader amid multiple corruption investigations. Mr. Netanyahu, the Israeli Prime Minister, remained defiant on Tuesday after Israel's national police chief (a man hand-picked by the Prime Minister) recommended that Israel's Attorney-General indict him on multiple charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust in the wake of two criminal investigations. Mr. Netanyahu, who denied everything, is highly unlikely to resign, but the charges could fray his right-wing coalition in next year's elections, or could result in him following the path of his predecessor Ehud Olmert, who was convicted and imprisoned for corruption. Or he could simply keep fighting for his own interests, and maintain his unsteady hold on power.

What really unites these disparate leaders is not their alleged improprieties. It is a style of politics. For both leaders, the purpose of every policy move, every statement and decision was to maintain their personal hold on office, at any cost – including the long-term interests of their party, their people and their country, all of which they damaged.

Both leaders have effectively stopped the clock: As long as they remained in office, their countries were frozen in time, unable to develop or to confront their most serious problems. It has been a lost decade for South Africa and Israel, their erstwhile dreams of a more stable and secure future exchanged for the immediate reality of one man's perpetual present. Worse: In order to secure their hold on power, they have led their countries down destructive paths that may prove almost impossible to reverse.

In South Africa, the toll has largely been economic and humanitarian. Under Mr. Zuma's leadership, South Africa's already high poverty rate has increased, its unemployment has soared, its gaping economic inequality has worsened and key human-development indicators have plunged. South Africa is the most prosperous country in sub-Saharan Africa, yet it has stagnated under Mr. Zuma, who has filled the cabinet and the civil service with corrupt and self-serving individuals who have been incapable of bringing about badly needed reforms to the country's education, health and housing. His successor, Cyril Ramaphosa, is seen as more competent and economically savvy, but will have an extraordinarily difficult task in purging South Africa of counterproductive rot and restoring the progress that ground to a halt when Mr. Zuma came to power.

In Israel, the price of nine years of Mr. Netanyahu's rule (following an earlier three years in the 1990s) has been felt in the loss of any future prospect for peace and stability. As a politician disliked by most Israelis outside right-wing circles, backed by fewer than a quarter of voters, he has instead relied on guile and backroom handshakes to maintain his coalitions of right-wing and religious parties that keep him in office. To make these deals possible, he has allowed the Israeli expansion of settlements in the West Bank, far beyond the borders needed to make any peace deal possible, to proceed unhindered – in fact, under his rule there has been a multiplication of financial subsidies and government benefits to prospective settlers.

Mr. Netanyahu, the Israeli journalist Akiva Eldar concludes, "has managed to squeeze the life out of any prospect of peace." By refusing to engage with Palestinian leaders on any matters of substance, by undermining them with symbolic and substantive blows to their communities, by denying the fifth of Israel's population who are Arab from any real political participation and by constantly finding excuses to evade genuine peace talks under three U.S. presidents, he has driven Palestinians into the hands of Hamas extremists. His chief legacy is a set of geographic and political realities that will make it next to impossible to make Israel a secure Jewish-majority country at any foreseeable time in the future.

Both of these important countries now find themselves awaiting some future leader who can restart their clock. Beneath the seedy tales of corruption, they've learned, is deeper damage that can be done by one man's quest for power.

Cyril Ramaphosa was elected as South Africa's president in a parliamentary vote on Thursday after scandal-ridden Jacob Zuma reluctantly resigned on orders from the ruling African National Congress.

Reuters

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