Avigdor Lieberman quit last Friday as foreign minister a few moments before Shabbat began, the preferred timing for Israeli politicians to do something uncomfortable and hold news coverage to a minimum. Lieberman's goal was to keep his resignation a non-issue. It was a gambit entirely in keeping with the surrealistically issueless non-campaign that he and his senior partner, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, are conducting on the way to the January 22 election.
The day before, Attorney General Yehudah Weinstein announced that after an investigation so long that no one agrees when it began, prosecutors had too weak a case to indict Lieberman for laundering millions of dollars allegedly received from foreign millionaires while he held public office. (One witness has had a stroke, another committed suicide, a third recanted…) But Weinstein did say he would indict Lieberman for fraud and breach of trust in a cover-up of one small piece of the larger case. A legal battle before the Supreme Court on whether the alleged crimes were weighty enough to obligate Lieberman to leave office would have focused public attention on the indictment and on corruption as a national problem. The standard speculation is that the Lieberman wants a quick plea bargain, but he may assume that the courts will get around to trying him "after the holidays," as Israeli bureaucrats like to say without specifying which holidays in which year.
Meanwhile, Lieberman remains the No. 2 candidate on the joint slate of his ultra-nationalist Yisrael Beitunu party and Netanyahu's now nearly-as-ultra-nationalist Likud. Lieberman is his party; its other candidates, picked by him, are extras. Perhaps not being foreign minister will help him avoid discussing what he hasn't accomplished in that post over the past four years. The most important foreign ties, with the United States, have been handled in a good-cop, bad-cop manner by outgoing Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Netanyahu. Lieberman has apparently seen his task as insulting other Western allies—most recently, when he described European criticism of settlement as a repeat of the Holocaust. To stave off any slight risk of being sucked into peace talks, he has regularly called for the ouster of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.
Legislatively, Lieberman hasn't delivered on the establishment of civil marriage in Israel, a key promise to his base among Russian-speaking immigrants. It's a blessing that he hasn't delivered anything else in his platform, which included disenfranchising Arab citizens and "reforming" government to allow the prime minister to take nearly Putin-esque power.
Nor is Netanyahu running on a record—except perhaps not attacking Iran (thank God) after threatening to for four years. Somehow, I doubt he is going to make campaign speeches about this. His claim of success in managing the economy is belied by his reason for calling early elections: his current coalition can't agree on a budget as the deficit balloons beyond government expectations. The November operation in Gaza ended with a ceasefire much like the one that went into effect hours before the offensive began. It did, however, boost Hamas's standing among Palestinians and in the Arab world.
With five weeks to the election, Netanyahu has so far evaded presenting any direction for his next term. He is actually running on the platform of being there, of inevitability: The fact that he is prime minister is offered as proof that he is qualified to be prime minister. His alliance with Lieberman makes it appear predestined that he will be leader of the largest bloc in the next Knesset, and a tame media describes him as the only candidate for the top job. He has no need to debate anyone before TV cameras; the others are running for a place at his cabinet table or for the opposition.
Shelly Yacimovich, leader of the Labor Party, dearly wants a referendum on Netanyahu's economic policies and the way they redistribute wealth to the wealthy. Tzipi Livni, now running at the head of a plain-wrap movement called The Movement, wants Israel to return to negotiations for a two-state solution. So far, Netanyahu simply doesn't discuss either subject. This is easier because Livni and Labor failed to form an alliance. The center-left is further fragmented by Yair Lapid's party, which calls itself There Is a Future but does not describe that future.
This has become a campaign with personalities but without politics. If neither the future of the West Bank nor the government's uncanny ability to impoverish its constituents are up for discussion, it's no wonder that a minor matter of an indictment of the presumed prime minister's presumed deputy can fade from view. Netanyahu and Lieberman promise to keep the ship on a steady course. At every opportunity, voters and the media should be demanding to know where they are heading. Nothing makes their victory inevitable but the inexcusable assumption that it is.