Comment / Israel Was All Too Willing to Sell Out for Gaydamak's Billions

Only three years ago the now convicted gun-runner was feted by the entire country as a savior.

Finally, 10 years after the investigation began in France, Arcadi Gaydamak has been sentenced to six years in prison and a hefty fine for selling hundreds of millions of dollars of arms to war-torn Angola. Not that he is planning to serve any time. The millionaire is holed up in Moscow where as long as he does nothing to anger the Kremlin, he is safe from extradition. He may have cheated justice, but we can at least derive satisfaction from the fact that we've probably seen the last of him. Israel has the necessary legislation to send him on a plane bound for Paris; and as he is about to be charged here with money-laundering, it seems pretty certain he'll never return to the country where only a year ago he was hoping to become prime minister.

Commentators were swift to remind us this week of when Gaydamak was feted by the entire country as a savior when he rushed to the rescue of the "refugees" of Kiryat Shmona during the Second Lebanon War, building a tent city for them on Nitzanim beach. How he'd bused exhausted Sderot residents to take vacations in Eilat hotels. How politicians, senior officers, journalists and businessmen all flocked to his extravagant parties, and how opportunistic town council members joined his nonexistent political party in the belief that he would sweep them to electoral victory - first on the local level, then the national. How thousands went into a frenzy, cheering for him in Jerusalem's soccer stadium and at the mass Independence Day party he organized. So quickly have we forgotten the central place he occupied in our lives for three years.

I was reminded of his very first blatant attempt to buy political power, almost four years ago - an episode no one seems to remember. In January 2006, Gaydamak signed an agreement with then-chairman of the Jewish Agency, Zeev Bielski, by which the Russian businessman was to donate $50 million over a five-year period to a Jewish education fund to be administered jointly with the Agency. In return, Gaydamak was to receive a seat on the Agency's most senior decision-making panels. But in a matter of months the deal fell through. Gaydamak accused the Agency of not taking his views into consideration in terms of the administration of the fund, into which he said he'd already poured $10 million. The Agency's leadership kept mum, but it was leaked to the press that they had received warnings from the police to keep away from Gaydamak. The relationship was cut off, and Gaydamak went on his way, leaving the Agency to deal with its huge deficit. The $10 million was the least of his worries.

Financial experts estimate the amount Gaydamak sunk into public campaigns, donations, purchases and investments - many made solely for the purpose of boosting his image, such as the purchase of bankrupt Bikur Holim hospital in Jerusalem, at around a billion dollars. On Beitar Jerusalem alone he squandered $120 million, in a vain attempt to transform the football team into a contender on the European level. But not only did Beitar fail to advance in the Champions League, the huge popularity of the capital's main team also failed to translate into electoral gains for Gaydamak. Despite using the Beitar yellow and black colors for his election posters, less than 5,000 Jerusalem residents voted for him in last year's local elections and his party failed to win any seats on the city council. The oligarch left in a huff, accusing Israelis of being ungrateful, and we haven't seen him back since.

Now just imagine that things had gone differently. That the Jewish Agency deal and other partnerships Gaydamak sought with the Israeli establishment had been realized. That the Jerusalem elections had taken place earlier, during the first flush of his Israeli journey, and not later when his popularity was on the wane. He would have been one of the most influential and powerful people in this country, a convicted gunrunner whose weapons had kept one of Africa's most murderous conflicts going for years.

Too many Israelis were bedazzled by Gaydamak's millions - and it wasn't just the money, it was our deep yearning to be loved, for someone who seemed so successful on the international scene. These are the same reasons the country's leaders prostrate themselves in front of the money-bearing fundamentalist Christians of the United States, who urge us to continue fighting the Arabs and to cling onto the territories so that we can fulfill their warped vision of Armageddon in the Holy Land.

Gaydamak is not the only Jewish tycoon in recent years who tried to change the course of Israeli politics and society by force of his money. Casino owner Sheldon Adelson has poured millions into a new free newspaper, Yisrael Hayom, currently the second-highest circulation paper in the country, with a singular agenda - pushing Benjamin Netanyahu for prime minister and, once there, keeping him in power. Angolan diamond dealer Lev Leviev, by offering free teaching assistants, managed to get secular primary schools around the country to teach a Lubavitch-inspired Orthodox curriculum of Jewish studies. Israelis woke up to the threat Leviev posed to them only recently, when his real estate empire went into free fall. The pensions of millions, which had been recklessly invested in his bonds, are now in jeopardy.

But it is not just the financial risk, or the still greater PR damage caused to Israel in the years that it harbored a criminal wanted by Interpol; the ease with which these billionaires have been allowed to acquire influence is a sign of a sick society, ready to sell out its values for a fistful of funny money.