related tags

How are we to treat the enigmatic figure of Arcadi Gaydamak? Is this a matter of a political prank, a sort of extraterrestrial being, serving as a comic interlude in the public realm, or are we dealing with an aggressive and sophisticated politician who challenges the governing institutions, provides the focus for a broad social protest and threatens to amass great political influence without bothering to present a shred of an agenda? Is he on a lark, trying to buy a place in society with money and clownish gimmicks? Or is he a real threat to the established rules of the game?

Until this past week's events, which culminated in the torching of the offices of the Israel Football Association, I tended to stick with the first option. It's enough to recall a few statements to diagnose the bizarre megalomania that characterizes the man. For example: "There was always a gvir in the Jewish community who arose naturally and became a de-facto leader," he said using a shtetl term for a rich man. "That is what happened to me"; "I bought Beitar [Jerusalem] and now 60 percent of the Mizrahim are mine"; "Moses didn't know how to speak either, but he had Aaron by his side. I have the media. It is my 'Aaron'"; "Ben-Gurion was a mediocre person who leaped at a historic opportunity." Nonsense of this type inspires ridicule in me, not fear."

Last week, at a game between Beitar Jerusalem and Bnei Sakhnin, there was a stronger feeling that Gaydamak had gone haywire. The story was recounted at length in the sports supplements. The game took place without an audience after the disciplinary punishment the IFA imposed on Beitar, but the owner refused to accept the decree. He spent 90 minutes running to and fro in the empty stands waving an enormous Beitar flag and screaming at the top of his lungs: "I hope I screamed loud, you didn't hear me?" Later he cursed IFA Chairman Avi Luzon ("hooligan," "corrupt") and called for the IFA to be closed down.

The difference between free speech and incitement is sometimes razor-thin. The facts are that several days later, unknown persons raided the IFA headquarters, tossed in a Molotov cocktail, caused great damage and sprayed hate slogans ("Luzon is dead"; "We'll murder you"). Gaydamak's initial response was typical: He shirked all responsibility ("I have no pangs of conscience") and even likened his spectacle to Ariel Sharon's historic visit to the Temple Mount: "Sharon had moral and legal legitimacy, and so do I." At the end of the day, he suddenly changed tack and, in a pathetic display of self-righteousness, announced: "If the arsonists were Beitar fans, and if they repeat this action, I will suspend my support for the team." Really? The gales of laughter at La Famiglia, Beitar's legendary fan club, attested to the statement's level of credibility. Everyone understands that without Beitar, Gaydamak is as good as dead politically.

The police have yet to find the culprits, but that doesn't change the requisite conclusions. Gaydamak's dangerous conduct in the field of sports is an accurate reflection of his conduct in the public sphere. The crude contempt for the supreme institution of Israeli soccer is merely an allegory for the populist offensive he is waging against the symbols of Israeli democracy. In both cases, he presents himself as the victim, plays on his audience's feelings of discrimination and nurtures an image of persecution, as though he were a Black Panther - not a billionaire with boundless riches.

His method is to identify for the masses who the enemy is. In the realm of soccer, he singled out the IFA's chairman and juridical bodies, which have a reputation for decency and objectivity. According to him, however, they were a bunch of corrupt hooligans who hated Beitar and discriminated against the team. In the public sphere, he freely lashes out at the heads of government (including Ben-Gurion), pushes his way into every social breach, and hands out wholesale condemnation to the law-enforcement establishment. So far it's working - the polls gave him seven Knesset seats for discrimination and victimhood.

This is where Gaydamak stops being droll and becomes a dangerous politician. He is revealed to be a political pyromaniac who exploits social distress to sow baseless hatred and distrust for the democratic game. This apparently led to the IFA arson, but the fire can spread to other provinces as well.