Like many people, I've been fascinated watching the protests in Israel over the past weeks. I'm not going to detail what caused them or anything like that. Others have done that in much greater detail and there's no need to rehash them. But I think that many here are misunderstanding what might happen as a result of them and this is what I wish to address. Please follow me over the fold.
I'm a political junkie - I follow politics in lots of countries. It's my hobby; I tell people that I have no idea who the starting lineup of the Green Bay Packers are (don't even know the QB to be honest) but I can tell you the results of the last election in Sweden. I say that to say I don't expect people to have the same familiarity with Israeli politics as I do and so it's perfectly reasonable for someone to expect that demonstrations the size of those we have seen in Israel would lead to the fall of the Government. However, this is not at all likely and I would like to explain the reasons why.
There has been a tendency to mix this protest movement in Israel up with the Arab Spring and people describing the Netanyahu government as one more domino to fall like the ones in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. This ignores a huge difference - those other governments were dictatorships that were in place for decades - Netanyahu was democratically elected by the people of Israel in a fair election just two and a half years ago. That's not to say people can't get mad at him and want him gone, but no one is thinking that he should be run from office at the point of a gun like the Arab dictators. So if he is to be replaced, it must be with the democratic systems already in place in Israel. There are two options. One is by election and one is by a no confidence vote of the Israeli Parliament.
As the Prime Minister, Netanyahu could dissolve the Knesset at any time and call a new election. He's certainly unlikely to do that right now - he still has the second half of his term to run and Netanyahu has a history of complaining about the instability of the Israeli political system. He'd love to be the first PM in ages to go a full term. Even if he felt it might be to his advantage to call a snap election (and that might actually be the case, believe it or not), it would be out of character for him to do so.
Plenty of Israeli PM's have been brought down by no confidence motions, though. In Israel, a motion of no confidence not only has to pass by a majority, said motion must also have a replacement PM named as part of it. So it's not enough to say that Netanyahu must go, those voting that way must also agree on who is to replace him (this wasn't always the case in Israel, btw.) There is, realistically, only one possible replacement PM in the existing Knesset - Tzipi Livni, the leader of Kadmia (which is actually the largest party in the Knesset holding one seat more than Netanyahu's Likud.) She would need 61 votes to form a government in her own right. Could she get them? The answer is yes - but also no.
You see, one thing that any Israeli government cannot do is rely on the Arab parties to make up the number needed for a majority. One can have any number of arguments about the unfairness of that, but it's a political reality. You need to get to 61 without them. In the current Knesset, the three Arab parties hold 11 seats. Those are effectively off the table for Livni. So what can she count of?
Right away, she can count on her own MK's (28) those of the far left New Movement-Mertez party (3) and those of Labour (8). That's 39 - 22 more to go. She'd have to get the two main religious parties - Shas (11) and UTJ (5). It's possible in theory - they've sat in left-leaning governments before. I think it would be harder than usual to get them and she'd have to bribe them like hell, but it's doable if she promised a boatload of money for housing and things like that. Doing so would also infuriate many of her base supporters and create all sorts of problems going forward, but if she was desperate, it might work. That would get her to 55; only 6 more needed but that would be a real stretch. She'd have to get the 5 members of Ehud Barak's Independence Party (which split of from Labor.) I don't see how she does it - Barak is already the Defense Minister; what can she offer him that he doesn't already have? Plus, he and Netanyahu are actually friends going back from the days in the military when Barak was Netanyahu's commanding officer. And even if he did come over for some reason, that would still only be 60 members. In the past, the National Religious Party (now renamed The Jewish Home) might have been an option, but they are too right wing these days. Plus, they have only 3 seats. I can't imagine that Avigdor Lieberman's Yisrael Beiteinu (15) party would sit in the same government as Meretz and the National Union (4) is so right-wing, they aren't even in the existing government. Given the makeup of the existing Knesset, I see no way that Netanyahu can be toppled and Livni become PM.
Ah, you say, but eventually there will be an election and surely the numbers will change? Perhaps, but the latest poll actually showed the right wing parties gaining a few seats. And for a left or center party to get a chance to form a government, they have to be either the biggest party in the Knesset or come very close. Labor is a fragment of its former self. They have been reduced by splits and defections - the latest poll shows them winning 10 seats in the next election - down even from the historic low of 13 they got last time.
But what about Kadima - they are the largest party now - surely they have a chance to repeat this feat? The problem is that Kadima is a rather artificial construct. It was formed by Ariel Sharon who intended it to be a center-right party and was made up of the more centrist members of Likud and the more right wing members of Labor. In practice, it also swallowed the supporters of the centrist and secular Shinui party who went from 15 MKs to 0 in one election. Sharon fell into a coma after forming the party and just before the next election. In many ways, Kadima won it's one election on the strength of Sharon even though people understood he was now out of the picture. But they started drifting more to the center as the Likud recovered strenght and they are now considered center left. All their Likud support has gone and has been replaced by former Laborites. And there is a big, potential earthquake out there that could snatch away a large portion of their support. Remember I mentioned that Kadima had gotten a lot of votes from supporters of Shinui? Well, the son of Shinui's most popular leader, Tommy Lapid is clearly planning to enter politics and re-invigorate Shinui. How worried is Kadima about this? So worried that they have actually proposed a law - known informaly in Israel as the Yair Lapid Law to keep Lapid (a journalist) out of the Knesset. Of course, Lapid knows what they are up to and will find a way around it. And there's no reason that Lapid's party would be unwilling to sit in a left-leaning government but if he takes a chunk of seats from Kadima, there is no way that any party other than Likud will have the largest number of seats and get the right to form the next government. And Lapid could easily do as his father did and sit in a government that leans right.
Of course, a year is an eternity in politics and things can always change. But frankly, based on the reality on the ground in Israel, I have a hard time seeing any other outcome than Netanyahu serving out his full term and getting re-elected.