Gaydamak Calls Olmert 'Egoist' Who 'Misunderstands His Job'

Gaydamak's funding of weekend getaway for 800 Sderot residents drew criticism from some politicians.

Billionaire Arkady Gaydamak on Monday slammed Prime Minister Ehud Olmert for speaking out against his financing of a weekend getaway to Eilat for 800 Sderot residents.

In an interview with The Associated Press, Gaydamak called Olmert an "egoist" who "misunderstands his job."

Gaydamak's donation drew applause from Israelis disappointed with the government's inaction and public criticism from Olmert, who termed the evacuation a "millionaire's promotional trick."

Other politicians also criticized Gaydamak for the move, which they said encouraged Israelis to run away from their homes.

"Any decision on an evacuation demands good judgment. I don't think Israel has to resort to abandoning [towns]," said Defense Minister Amir Peretz, a Sderot resident.

In the interview with AP Monday, Gaydamak said the criticism was motivated by politicians' fear that he could defeat them in an election if he ran. "They have no basic understanding that they are the people's servants, that they are representatives who are supposed to manage this society," Gaydamak said.

When he was called by a "crying mother from Sderot" begging to be evacuated, Gaydamak said, he felt that "as a Jew, and as a human being" he could not refuse. Gaydamak said he has no political aspirations. He just wants to help.

But many think that the elusive billionaire's motives are murkier, and have charged that Gaydamak, who first came to Israel in 1972, is trying to purchase himself a safe haven. He has elicited comparisons him to Shmuel Flatto-Sharon, a Jewish businessman who escaped to Israel in the late 1970s to avoid embezzlement charges in France and had himself elected to Parliament to use his parliamentary immunity to avoid extradition.

Gaydamak, a father of three who has homes in Moscow and the upscale Israeli town of Caesarea, has never been convicted of a crime.

But he faces under an international arrest warrant because of a French investigation into alleged arms trafficking to Angola in the early 1990s. His recent attempt to buy the failing French paper France Soir was foiled by prosecutors who said any funds he moved into France could be seized.

In Israel he's been investigated in a major money laundering case. He has not been indicted, but police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said that the case remains open.

"I never did something wrong in my life," Gaydamak said Monday. He said he made all of his money on the Russian stock exchange, calling it the "most dynamic stock exchange in the world."

Gaydamak has repeatedly slammed the police for what he says is political persecution, even taking out an ad in an Israeli paper attacking legal authorities.

In the meantime, he has become an A-list celebrity in Israel, holding a star-studded New Year's party and enjoying the spotlight as the owner of one of the country's most famous soccer franchises, Beitar Jerusalem, whose fans composed a song comparing him to the Messiah. His son Alexandre has also acquired a soccer club, the English Premier League's Portsmouth.

Gaydamak is now in the final stages of purchasing a popular local radio station, 99 FM, after the government cleared the way by ruling the French charges have exceeded the statute of limitations.

The station, like the soccer club, is not a profitable business enterprise, but still a worthwhile way to connect with Israelis, he said. "People will hear Sinatra, or the Beatles, and think, 'That's Gaydamak's radio station,"' he said.

Gaydamak has gone from anonymous to omnipresent. When gay activists and ultra-Orthodox Jews clashed recently over a planned Jerusalem pride parade, Gaydamak showed up unexpectedly to try - unsuccessfully, as it turned out - to negotiate a deal between the sides.

He has also become the savior of choice for Israelis in distress and abandoned by a dismally unpopular government.

This summer, when nearly 4,000 Hezbollah rockets pummeled northern Israel, it was Gaydamak who funded the evacuation of thousands of northerners for an all-expenses-paid beach vacation until the fighting ended.

And last week, after a Palestinian rocket killed a woman in Sderot, Gaydamak stepped in again, sending a fleet of buses to take residents to hotels in Eilat.