Shooting the mediator
For four years, Yossi Milstein was Arcadi Gaydamak's wingman, translating Israeli reality for the Russian oligarch. But after the tycoon's dismal showing in Jerusalem's elections, Milstein was shown the door
Arcadi Gaydamak was sure he'd be the next mayor of Jerusalem. From his campaign stomping grounds, he made a point of mentioning the hundreds of millions of shekels he had contributed to the city and his enormous investment in its populist symbol: the Beitar Jerusalem soccer team. But in last Tuesday's local elections, Gaydamak garnered a mere 7,000 votes. A week later, his personal aide and spokesman, Yossi Milstein, learned from media reports that he had been dismissed.
For almost four years, Milstein, 31, was the man who had to mediate between the foreign oligarch and Israeli reality. And Milstein still has more to learn about his boss. "This is no way to behave, but Gaydamak doesn't surprise me anymore," said Milstein about the indirect way in which the Russian billionaire fired him.
Our conversation with Milstein took place after Gaydamak's stinging defeat.
What does it mean to work with Gaydamak?
Milstein: "It means being available 364 days of the year, sleeping with two telephones on, and it means taking a backseat when there are big successes and standing out front when there are big failures."
Accompanying the boss to interrogation rooms isn't usually part of the job.
"In the early days of the interrogations, when the police would leak that Arcadi was coming or going, I used to get really angry. Eventually, I was the one inviting the media."
Was there a certain moment when you were actually afraid?
"In this whole job there was an element of madness, and at times there was fear in that, too. The night when the Bank Hapoalim affair blew up, I found myself in the offices of the Police International Crimes Unit at three in the morning. I didn't understand what was happening. I was afraid for Gaydamak."
He knows that you know what I don't know.
"But he also knows that you'll go on not knowing. As far as that goes, he can sleep soundly."
It sounds like a mafia.
"With any businessman of this magnitude, anywhere in the world, you have on the one hand what you call dark corners, and on the other hand there are clear codes. I really think it's impossible to take Arcadi's successes from him, and I also contributed to them. Even after the sixth interrogation, dozens of cameras were waiting for him outside the building, and the flashes were still blinding then, too."
Did they blind you as well?
"Yes. I don't know too many media consultants whose clients have appeared so frequently on the most watched television programs. At our peak moments, no one was talking about Angola or any entanglements. I proved that I could produce headlines every day, so people would stop talking about the problems and supposed scandals."
In other words, you were engaged in diversionary tactics.
Your success is no badge of honor for the Israeli media and public.
"Perhaps, but it's my badge of honor. It's an amazing feeling of satisfaction to build up a label that for a certain period of time was more popular in Israel than Coca Cola."
After you've helped to stage the one-man show starring Gaydamak, the question remains whether there's also a human being there.
"I think so, sometimes more human than me. He was able to forget sometimes that there was a camera and microphone there. I never forgot for a moment. But I have nothing to complain about. After about four years, I'm coming out of it with a major asset: my public credibility and credibility vis-a-vis the media. That's something no one can take from me. I appreciated the magnitude of this achievement at my 30th birthday party, when hundreds of top people from every sphere came to celebrate with me. Then I knew that I could stand on my own."
After the elections in Jerusalem, Gaydamak disappeared from the media, and also from the people who had accompanied him throughout his election campaign - whom he didn't even thank. He popped up in an interview with Maariv, which Milstein knew nothing of before it appeared. He afterward had to deal with the throng of reporters who turned to him, as usual, for a response.
Our interview continued at that juncture.
Gaydamak was very fond of comparing himself to Moses. To carry that analogy further, the Jewish people made life miserable for Moses, too, but he didn't desert them.
"I think it comes from feeling deeply offended. It's hard for me, too, to accept that people just want to take from Arcadi, but not to give to him."
Still, to divorce himself from the country like this certainly isn't in keeping with "Jewish tradition," another one of Gaydamak's favorite terms. Charity doesn't demand something in return.
"True, but I still think that the tent city in Nitzanim was a genuine act, and not for profit. I just know how it came about: I was sitting in a cafe one Friday when a big Katyusha barrage on the north began. People from up there called me and said they couldn't go on this way. I called Arcadi and he asked what he could do to help. His response was immediate. He didn't even ask how much it cost."
Israel is full of people who'd be ready to sacrifice their lives for the country, and they don't kick its citizens when they fail in an election.
"That's right, but there's another, simple way to look at it: When you buy milk at the grocery store and then you get home and find that it's spoiled, it makes you mad."
So we're the faulty goods that he purchased?
"Yes, as he sees it, apparently."
Have you ever tried to understand why he really did all that he did?
"Not everything was done out of the same motivation. Nitzanim was 'pure' giving, without any political motive. There may have been other reasons, but it wasn't about amassing political strength or recruiting votes."
Maybe it was an attempt to obtain immunity from the law, by virtue of stature and public sympathy?
"Yes, certainly. Not immunity from the law, but from all those chasing after him. But Nitzanim was a totally real thing - 'I can, so I'm doing it.'"
How did the whole idea of going into politics arise?
"It arose after Nitzanim. Arcadi convened a meeting that was attended also by Yaakov Narodetsky [currently the director of his political party], and his son David [currently the party's legal adviser]. Arcadi said he'd come to the conclusion that there was a basis for founding a party and that he'd decided to go ahead with it. In fact, at the time, the polls were also predicting great success for him, although the original, and correct, idea was that he would serve solely as party chairman, and not run for any office. We talked about organizing along the Shas-Rabbi Ovadia Yosef model. You can't say that Arcadi doesn't consult with other people, but he definitely doesn't always listen."
Maybe that's the reason for his undoing in politics: the total blurring of what I wish and what will actually materialize. The distinction between celebrity and political support was also totally blurred.
"Both statements are largely correct. Still, even I was stunned by the election results in Jerusalem - 7,500 voters? The biggest disappointment was from the Beitar fans."
"If Nitzanim was charity, Beitar Jerusalem was an investment. And people want payback on their investment. That didn't happen here."
Maybe it was because of his foreignness that Gaydamak didn't understand that he would not become the mayor of Jerusalem. Did you understand that?
"I didn't fully understand it, either, and I was part of the system that produced excessive expectations. No one around us, or anywhere in the political environment, expected this to be the result. No one outside of Arcadi himself expected that he would be mayor, but we didn't think we'd get these kind of numbers."
There must be a connection between the trouncing of Gaydamak and the way his election campaign was run.
"If we'd received 15,000-20,000 votes, one could say that the low number of voters was the result of a lousy or wrongheaded election campaign. But 7,000 votes is an expression of complete no-confidence in the candidate, regardless of his advisers."
In the new situation, will the Social Justice party continue to exist?
"The party is an autonomous body, and I'm very much in favor of it competing in the elections."
With Gaydamak as chairman?
"I don't know about that."
The report of his dismissal reached Milstein as he was testifying at length before the Israel Securities Authority about his boss' business dealings, apparently in relation to Gilon Investments.
In retrospect, when did you realize that something had gone wrong?
"When he started acquiring companies in Israel. When Ocif was purchased over Passover a year and a half ago, and then the failed attempt with Tiv Taam came about, I realized that we were getting into a problem. Up until then, there was no criticism of the man, despite the investigations. It was clear to me that were going down a bad track. He wasn't focused, I felt that it should be either politics or business. Each of which are pretty much closed off to foreigners and newcomers."
Did you say something to him about it?
"All the time. I told him that this combination didn't work well in Israel, or in Russia, or maybe anywhere in the world. He ignored it. But I have to admit that when there was a big rise in what the financial press called 'Gaydamak's stock,' I thought that maybe it could work temporarily at least.
"Just before the campaign in Jerusalem, I told him that he had to transfer his business to someone else, to divert the fire being aimed at him from the financial arena to the political arena. He did transfer his business concerns into the care of his attorney, Yossi Segev."
Did you ever think of leaving, because of the problematic image that also gets projected onto you?
"Not for a moment, even though there are people who advised me to do so. It's not just the money, it's the commitment and the intensity. Most of all, I would have liked to be an adviser to a prime minister. Still, I don't regret it for a second."
You're not afraid that Gaydamak might call you a "dirty dog," as he called Uri Shani, his chief business manager in Israel?
"Gaydamak was genuinely hurt by Uri Shani who appeared for a minute and demanded millions. But as for your question, I happen to like dogs, and I don't believe for a minute that I would ever hear him call me 'dirty.'"
What have you learned from this period in your life?
"A lot. As the Russian proverb goes: If you live with wolves, you'll learn to howl like them."
And what will he think about this interview?
"I think he'll be surprised to discover that there's an independent entity there."