The First Israeli Oligarch From Money-maker to King-maker

Lily Galili
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Lily Galili

If Arcadi Gaydamak goes all the way with his political ambitions, he will in effect become the first Jewish oligarch of the State of Israel. Gaydamak has mistakenly been lumped together with the Russian oligarchs who made their fortune when the Soviet Union fell apart and used their money to determine its rulers. Gaydamak left the USSR in the 1970s and made his money elsewhere, but now he intends to use it to become a king-maker in Israeli politics. That power means much more to him than the power he would gain from a petty position as a member of Knesset.

The man he wants to crown is Benjamin Netanyahu, whom he sees as the worthiest candidate for prime minister. The deal is a simple one: With a social welfare platform, Gaydamak brings the lower-income voters that Netanyahu lost back to the fold, while the Likud chairman brings his security and foreign policy experience to a public that hungers for people with experience. The first goal is to bring about early elections, mainly by persuading Yisrael Beiteinu Chairman Avigdor Lieberman to quit the cabinet. That is what the Russian-speaking community, in particular, wants, and the Russian-speaking arena is where Lieberman and Gaydamak will duke it out.

The problem with Gaydamak's entry into politics is precisely the fact that it is no longer perceived as a problem. In light of the country's long history of public scandal, Gaydamak doesn't seem so bad, as various recent instant Internet polls have shown. He is not forcing himself on us, we brought him on ourselves. Gaydamak merely recognized an opportunity. Just as during last summer's Lebanon war he saw an opportunity to step into the vacuum left by the collapse of the welfare state and provided refuge for thousands, now he recognizes the weakness of the country's law enforcement system, which he has been dueling with for some time now. His claims of persecution sound much more credible against the backdrop of the police corruption that has recently come to light.

If a single event led to Gaydamak's decision, it was the bizarre cabinet meeting at which Prime Minister Ehud Olmert attacked him personally after he whisked some Sderot residents away to Eilat for a vacation from the missile barrage. The hurtful words made Gaydamak a figure worthy of debate by the cabinet, while igniting his own ambition.

The distance from a plan for a new party to its realization is rather far. The main obstacle is the fact that most of Gaydamak's popularity comes from his being not a politician but a somewhat eccentric philanthropist. It is difficult to predict whether his popularity can survive the move into party politics. It is also doubtful that the main target audience of the new party, the Russian-speaking community, will follow the dictates of a behind-the-scenes authority, the way that Shas voters follow Rabbi Ovadia Yosef.

The glue that could hold the whole thing together is Gaydamak's real ambition, which is to be mayor of Jerusalem. And that could spell the first time that someone gets into national politics in order to enter local politics.



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