In 1977, Shmuel Flatto-Sharon, a new immigrant and a kooky businessman, was elected to the Knesset. He paved his way to the legislature by promising acts of charity and telling stories of good work for the Jewish people in which he was supposedly engaged in the past. Despite his strange character, the cloud of doubt hanging over his head (in France he was considered an escaped felon) and his garbled Hebrew, he managed to win the votes of more than 35,000 people. At the time, his election was considered an insult to Israeli democracy. Since then, it has been viewed as an oddity.
Thirty years later, the state is facing a similar phenomenon, but this time the potential for damage is far greater. As things look now, it is doubtful if it will go down in the annals of Israeli parliamentarianism as a mere anecdote.
Arcadi Gaydamak is a new immigrant who spreads his money around in what seems to be philanthropy for its own sake. Unlike Flatto-Sharon, the suspicions against Gaydamak did not translate into an indictment. He has even avoided directly tying his generosity to real political moves. Flatto-Sharon failed in that he was found guilty of giving bribes that helped him get elected to the Knesset. Gaydamak gives charity to a population in distress, ostensibly with no intention of political gain.
However, Gaydamak stumbled, revealing a small portion of his intentions. In an interview with Yediot Ahronot on Sunday, he spoke of his ability to get elected to the premiership, because of his distinguished personal attributes in contrast to the operational failures of the current leaders, and about the large-scale support he enjoys among the public. "If I decide to run, I will get 40 seats in the Knesset," the lord was quoted in the paper. "Politicians know it and they are afraid."
Gaydamak did indeed gain purchase in wide sectors of the public - among football and basketball fans, the population exposed to terror in the north and the south, immigrants from the former Soviet Union, evacuees from the Gaza Strip, and others. He buys himself amity with money, and this conduct challenges the rules of the game by which Israeli democracy has so far existed.
Even in a 60-year-old country that long ago lost its innocence, the basis for the fight over the voter's ballot has so far not been about money. Parties vied with each other over their positions, their interests, and their ways of operation.
Even an unrealistic society is aware of the connection between money and power, recognizes the custom of governments to lavish favors on election eve and knows the twisted ways by which the candidates fund their campaigns. However, even in such a society, it has not so far been considered legitimate to outrightly buy public support with money.
Gaydamak seems to be undermining the existing system; the question is if Israeli democracy can protect itself from him.
The solution will not come from the legal realm: there is no legal flaw in Gaydamak's conduct. It is his right to contribute money as he sees fit, and he does not link his generosity to actual political activity. Reading his statements in Yediot Ahronot, one might suspect that he is casting his bread on the water, but he can claim that his generosity is no different than that of the Joint Distribution Committee.
The law protects society from crooked fund-raising for political campaigns only when such activity is connected to elections. If the individual separates lavishing favors on the public from expecting a return on his chivalry, he has committed no infraction. Moreover, Gaydamak sets no conditions and has promised nothing to those he treats well. Thus, the component of recompense that would turn his favors into bribery is lacking. However his statements in the interview ostensibly show his intention to enter the political arena and to build himself up on the gifts he hands out to his potential voters.
The way to thwart Gaydamak's system is to make it redundant: to make the government fulfill its obligations and provide for its citizens, who are in need at this time of a patron.
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