Gaydamak Sells Off Israeli Assets to Run for J'lem Mayor

Arcadi Gaydamak has decided to cease his business activity in Israel and concentrate all his efforts on a political career, which includes a candidacy in the upcoming mayoral race in Jerusalem.

The controversial billionaire said that he intends to sell all his businesses in Israel in order to turn his attention to politics.

Gaydamak's associates said that the Russian-born tycoon has reached the conclusion that his business activities are undermining his political work.

"When the stock market crashes and [the billionaire Lev] Leviev loses, that is a small headline in the newspapers; when the same happens to Gaydamak, precisely the same thing, it fills entire pages," an associate said.

As such, the strategy of the Gaydamak election committee is for him to hit the "Jerusalem street by the end of September," so as to be able to to retain the media's attention until as close as possible to election time.

The possible entry of former Shas leader Aryeh Deri into the race for Jerusalem mayor, may drastically alter this strategy.

Part of Gaydamak's strategy of taking over the Jerusalem street is also reflected in the changes that he is making in the leading positions of his soccer club, Beitar Jerusalem. According to Gaydamak advisers, the changes are expected to draw business leaders who had reservations about the previous management at Beitar, and who now are expected to help rally support for his candidacy.

In two weeks, Gaydamak is scheduled to meet with 120 Jerusalem businessmen, some of whom are also leading figures in their communities.

Meanwhile, Gaydamak held a clandestine, night-time meeting with the grand mufti of Jerusalem and the Palestinian Authority, Muhammad Ahmad Hussein, with the hope of harnessing the votes of residents of East Jerusalem.

Hussein, who is both a religious and a political leader, does not normally meet with Israeli public figures, yet the surprising meeting with Gaydamak went on for some 90 minutes.

Although Arab residents generally do not participate in Jerusalem's municipal elections (though they are entitled to), Gaydamak is hoping to reverse that tendency, and hopes the mufti will encourage them to cast ballots in this fall's - in his favor, of course.

His election committee estimates that if 30,000 of the 130,000 residents of East Jerusalem eligible to vote in the municipal elections were to support the Gaydamak, he might be in a position to secure victory.

The clandestine meeting between Gaydamak and the mufti was held at the latter's home in the neighborhood of Abu Tor in Jerusalem. The tycoon arrived at the home after dark, accompanied by his aides and with Palestinian guards.

During the meeting Gaydamak presented his views on Jerusalem to his hosts.

However, one of the participants in the meeting told Haaretz that the meeting did not touch on any aspects of the Palestinian issue and was not political, stressing that Gaydamak related to the mufti as a religious leader.

In the past, the mufti made statements against plans to construct a synagogue in proximity to the Al-Aqsa mosque, arguing that this would constitute an attempt by Israel to take control of the Temple Mount.

In conversations with aides, Gaydamak said that "there is no point in discussing the Al-Aqsa question when residents have no running water in their homes."

On Tuesday, Gaydamak met with Akram Abu Shalbek, a grassroots organizer in East Jerusalem with very close ties to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. The meeting, which was also attended by 10 other East Jerusalem notables, focused primarily on the day-to-day problems of the residents of the Arab neighborhoods.

During the meeting, Gaydamak declared his intention to upgrade the services and conditions in East Jerusalem quarters to the level of those in predominantly Jewish neighborhoods.

At the end of the meeting it was agreed to "begin quiet activity" at the grassroots level.

Another meeting, with 100 local leaders will be scheduled with Gaydamak.

One of Gaydamak's initiatives is the transformation of Jerusalem into a site of pilgrimage for Muslims from all parts of the world. An annual pilgrimage to Jerusalem could serve as a major economic boost for businesses in the city.

Gaydamak's meeting with the mufti was only one in a series of meetings with Jerusalem-based religious leaders held by the candidate. On Monday this week, he met with Archbishop Antonio Franco, the Vatican's representative in Israel.

The Italian archbishop, whose has been described as "the Pope's special envoy to the Holy Land," is thought to be one of Pope Benedict's most intimate confidants. That relationship thus accords the meeting with special significance, as it has been portrayed as an expression of the pope's official position on the Jerusalem mayoral race.

"Jerusalem is the center for three religions, and the Jewish establishment must solidify constructive relations with Christians and Muslims," Gaydamak said. "This is the only way we will create understanding toward Israel and the Jewish people."

Gaydamak also explained to Haaretz that even though it may have seemed that he has stepped down from the political arena, he in fact was only just beginning his campaign for the Jerusalem mayor position.

The billionaire has held a number of meetings with members of the city council, including representatives of Shas and Meretz, and other local leaders, including representatives of labor unions and of youth groups.

Following yesterday's news of the possible candidacy of former Shas chair Aryeh Deri for the mayoral post, Gaydamak also held talks with a senior figure in the ultra-Orthodox Sephardi party in order to discuss possible political cooperation.

During the meeting, Gaydamak informed the Shas figure of his assessment on his chances to be elected. Basing himself on to surveys undertaken by ultra-Orthodox radio stations, Gaydamak argues that he may receive as much as 20 percent of the Haredi vote in the city. He also calculates that he will draw as much as 65 percent of the support of secular voters in the city.