Beware of Stars

The fall of Arcadi Gaydamak teaches us that national leadership requires experience in public life - as several prime ministers who reached their post prematurely have proved.

The Israeli public's loathing of politicians sometimes creates a yearning for another kind of leader - someone who rose like a star in the army, intelligence services or business. He is expected to possess a sweeping charisma that can rise above the tedious obstacles in the party, Knesset faction or minor cabinet portfolio and easily solve Israel's problems. Israeli political history has known quite a few such stars, who begin with great promise but are later remembered as an anecdote.

Arcadi Gaydamak will be remembered as the most aberrant of all - a new immigrant from the Soviet Union in the early '70s who left Israel and returned a few years ago as a multimillionaire, after making a fortune from mysterious deals in Africa and Russia. He sought influence and public status any way he could get it - buying the Beitar Jerusalem soccer club, forming a social movement, purchasing companies on the stock market and running for mayor of Jerusalem.

His most outstanding project, setting up the refugee camp in Nitzanim for evacuees from the north in the Second Lebanon War, portrayed him as a worthy alternative to a government that failed to do its job. Soon after that, opinion polls pointed to him as a candidate for state leadership.

But Gaydamak failed, as did all the meteorites before him. His charity projects and political aspirations did not lift the suspicions of severe criminal offenses in France and Israel that hovered over him. His public activity did not deter law enforcers from investigating him on suspicion of laundering hundreds of millions of shekels.

After his defeat in the election for Jerusalem mayor and the investigation that produced an indictment, Gaydamak left Israel. On Tuesday a French court sentenced him in absentia to six years in prison for gunrunning and money laundering.

After the initial admiration, the Israeli public turned its back on Gaydamak and his political initiatives crashed. The affair teaches us, again, to beware of stars in politics. National leadership is not an innate quality or the sequel to a military or business career. It requires experience in public life - as several prime ministers who reached their post prematurely have proved.

Instead of worshipping celebrities and "winners," it is important to strengthen the existing political system. With all its flaws, it is still the most proven way to produce political leaders.