Netanyahu’s 2015: A whirlwind of wins and losses

Between the election in which he prevailed for a fourth term and the Iran deal, the prime minister has had his hands full this year.

PM Benjamin Netanyahu (photo credit: JPOST STAFF,REUTERS)
PM Benjamin Netanyahu
(photo credit: JPOST STAFF,REUTERS)
After winning a crucial vote in the Knesset in September on the natural gas issue, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu took the podium and, after acknowledging there were still more obstacles before the contentious deal is finalized, said, “When I want something, I achieve it.”
That’s quite a statement. It reflects, depending on one’s own personal opinion of the prime minister, either supreme confidence or supreme arrogance.
But is it true? Does it hold up to a “fact check”? Did Netanyahu, indeed, achieve what he wanted in 2015? The New York Times, in an analysis last week of the recent Spanish election and what it means for Europe, quoted a European analyst as saying that with its economic and refugee problems – coupled with a growth of populist parties that are splintering the European political scene – 2015 turned out to be an annus horribilis (horrible year) for the continent.
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How about Netanyahu? Was 2015 his annus horribilis? Or was it the polar opposite, an annus mirabilis (wonderful year)? Actually, it was neither. Things are not binary. One doesn’t generally have a good year or a bad year, an annus horribilis or an annus mirabilis; but rather something between the two – an annus medietas.
And the same is obviously true of most world leaders.
They don’t either win all their battles or lose them all; achieve everything, or nothing. Rather there is a middle ground, and that is where Netanyahu resided for much of the year.
To a certain degree, Netanyahu’s year was encapsulated in the March election and its coalition-forming aftermath: he both won and then lost. That was a recurring theme for Netanyahu, both winning and losing, losing and winning, on the same issue.
Netanyahu’s reelection was, by any reckoning, a great political victory for an Israeli politician without peer.
Up until the last days of the campaign he was getting beaten in the polls, the atmosphere in the country was one of everything falling apart, and – therefore – a need for change at the top.
But the country – which went to sleep on election night with exit polls showing a virtual tie between the Likud and the Zionist Union – woke up the next March morning with a surprise: not a narrow victory by one party or the other, but with a veritable landslide. Instead of the 22 or 23 seats predicted in the polls, the prime minister won 30 to the Zionist Union’s 24, a net gain of 12 seats for the Likud from the previous election in 2013.
Netanyahu called an early election in December 2014 as his coalition with Avigdor Liberman, Tzipi Livni, Yair Lapid and Naftali Bennett proved unworkable. Too many people and parties pulling in too many directions, and nobody listening to him. He called an election saying the coalition was ungovernable, and that he needed to be voted back into office with a stronger hand.
Netanyahu opted to shuffle the deck, gambling that he would not only be reelected, but he would be given a coalition better able to govern.
The first part of his gamble paid off; he won yet again, for an unprecedented fourth time, something that speaks volumes about his political acumen. But the second part of the gamble – that he would be better off by shuffling the deck – didn’t work out as well. Political pundits stood aghast as his natural coalition partner Yisrael Beytenu turned him down, and the Zionist Union gave him a cold shoulder.
Netanyahu went from an unruly coalition of 68 Knesset seats in 2014, to a slim governing coalition of 61 in 2015, meaning his political fate could be determined by one unhappy, wavering, discontent MK. He was returned as the country’s dealer, but the hand he dealt himself was weaker than what he had before. He won the big victory, but lost a significant battle.
Something similar could be said of his other mammoth challenge that came to a tipping point after many years in 2015, the fight against the Iranian nuclear deal. On this matter it could be fairly said that Netanyahu won some significant skirmishes, but lost the big battle – with the overall war still to be decided.
Netanyahu’s boast that he gets what he wants did not hold true regarding Iran. As he has said on various occasions, he has been fighting against Iran becoming a nuclear power since the mid-1990s, even before most others were paying attention.
He can take a lot of the credit for getting the world to take note of what was happening inside Iran’s nuclear laboratories, and – by posing a credible military threat to Iran in the early part of the current decade – for getting the world to significantly ratchet up the sanctions.
He won those skirmishes: The world took note of Iran, and imposed such crippling sanctions that Tehran had to return to the negotiating table.
But he lost the big battle when, following an unprecedentedly public dispute with President Barack Obama, Congress failed to muster the votes that would be needed to scuttle a deal the world powers, led by the Washington, had negotiated with the Iranians.
Netanyahu did everything he could to torpedo the deal, including – over the strenuous objections of Obama – addressing Congress last March. He shouted against the deal from every podium – alone, one voice against the rest of the world. He went toe-to-toe against the president of Israel’s most important friend.
He expended much of his time and energy, and – some would say – the country’s diplomatic capital. And in the end, he lost. The deal was signed, and Congress sealed it. Delivery of the deal – implementation – is due this year.
Which means, of course, that the war is not over, that a new battle will be joined. This time the battle will, one hopes, be waged together with the US administration, and not against it, to ensure that the world watches Iran very carefully, that it holds its feet to the fire, and that it demands that Iran keeps to the letter of the deal, something that – if indeed ensured – could very well keep Tehran from going nuclear for the next 15 years.
Netanyahu lost on Iran in 2015, but that’s not the end of the story – this particular saga will continue into 2016, and probably far beyond. As will his signature accomplishment of 2015 – his reelection. Netanyahu won, again; but his political fight to stay in power continues, and it continues with him heading the slimmest coalition he has ever had to try to hold together.
In 2015 Netanyahu won and lost, lost and won, often on the exact same issues. Expect more of the same in 2016.