Local Elections / Jerusalem / Drawing on an Untapped Vote Well

On Monday this week Arcadi Gaydamak held a five-hour election tour of East Jerusalem, the city where he is running for mayor. In the black Mercedes 600 he traveled between the bumps of the capital's poverty-stricken neighborhoods' unpaved roads, met with dignitaries, and consulted with "activists" who among the Jews would probably be called vote contractors.

The strangest thing about this tour was its unusual normality in the abnormal situation. Only someone who is new and foreign to this experience, like candidate Gaydamak, could unknowingly skip over the strangeness and turn the personally and politically fraught occasion into another election tour - and a successful one at that. The Palestinians, who simply called him "a millionaire candidate of Russian origin," are well aware how unusual this is. "We and you [Palestinians and Jews] are like water and oil that don't mix," explains Khaled Nasr Adin, an East Jerusalem businessman who studied the sciences. "Gaydamak could be the emulsion that will combine the two substances. Look at the situation: All your candidates talk about a united Jerusalem, but emphasize the division by the very fact that they don't campaign here at all. You won't find a single election poster, and you certainly won't see a visit by a candidate. This time I'll vote in the elections, and I'll support Gaydamak."

Surprised passersby on the street hugging the Old City wall know exactly what they can get from the man who has entered their lives for a moment. "Take us for a trip too, the way you took the people in Sderot," is the defiant reaction of an unemployed young man in a sundries store that Gaydamak entered. He said it in Hebrew, and when the candidate replies in English, the young Palestinian scolds him for not knowing the language. Only in Israel, and only Gaydamak.

During another part of the tour, a Palestinian doctor who studied in Russia helped by translating Gaydamak into Arabic. At the entrance to the enclave of the Elad radical Jewish organization in the miserable Silwan neighborhood, it was the security guards - young immigrants from the CIS - who took the job on themselves. Who said there's no new Middle East, where even Russia wants a foothold?

By remote control from Russia, senior officials are helping Gaydamak with contacts with the Palestinian Authority, and Russian clerics are lobbying on his behalf with clerics in East Jerusalem. And what can he give them in exchange as mayor? "Mainly honor," reply Gaydamak's associates.

Gaydamak came to the tour prepared. He has good teachers. Among others, he met with Hanna Siniora, an intellectual and well-known politician, who openly called on people to vote. The Palestinian team that surrounds Gaydamak is composed of Abu Mazen's associates, highly regarded attorneys in East Jerusalem and those with connections with other senior officials. The involvement of Avi Kostelitz, former chief of the Shin Bet security services in Judea and Samaria and a candidate for city hall in the Social Justice party, is a safety valve in this arena of activity.

The Palestinian activists on the staff accompanied the tour, but were as evasive as ghosts. Their help is still a type of anonymous giving. Only those who have to know - do. Surprisingly, this overt-covert activity is met by silence on the part of Hamas. The fact that Palestinian television is covering the entire tour is a clear expression of the change taking place in the Arab Jerusalem street, and Gaydamak is its representative. Diplomatic time has merged with political time, and Gaydamak has found a solid place for himself on this seam line. The traditional Palestinian call to boycott the elections has been openly replaced with a removal of the prohibition, and occasionally with open support.

Just at a time when Jerusalem is "on the table" in the diplomatic negotiations, the Palestinians are signaling that division is preferable for the Israelis, because otherwise they will express their electoral strength. In 2030, according to their calculations, there will be a Palestinian mayor of a reunited city. At the suitable moment they have been offered a suitable candidate with no military past, no political past in Israel, and whose other past doesn't really interest them.

"There is something to this general analysis," confirmed Fahmi Nashashibi, one of the owners of the Golden Walls Hotel opposite the wall, who is a member of the local aristocracy. "This really is the first time that I'm considering voting."

Nashashibi hosted the meeting with Gaydamak in his hotel. He wanted to hear his opinion about the division of Jerusalem, and Gaydamak elegantly evaded the question, claiming that he is not prepared for dealing with this issue. "I actually admired his answer," Nashashibi told Haaretz. "I also admired the fact that he came here before the elections, without fear of deterring Jewish voters. Usually they come to us after the elections, when there is already no reason to be afraid of the electoral price."

The meeting at the hotel was attended mainly by businessmen. Gaydamak juggled between emphasizing his Jewish identity and promising an Arab deputy mayor, and committed himself to bringing them investments from the Arab world and to entrench United Nations institutions in the city, which will flourish under his rule.

When he went outside for a round of handshakes with peddlers on the filthy main street, the cosmopolitan vision was replaced by a painful reality and endless complaints about blatant neglect, about the difficulty of obtaining a business license, about unemployment. "When Israel came to us in 1967 I was 16 years old," says a doctor from the Al-Makassed Hospital in East Jerusalem. "I didn't dream that 40 years later it would look worse than Nablus." Next week, he says, candidate Gaydamak is expected to visit the hospital. "We'll see," he sighs, "maybe he'll do something."

In Silwan they led the candidate between old ruins and houses slated for demolition. Gaydamak had been prepared for the fact that home demolitions is one of the painful issues. Gaydamak replies as a businessman rather than a politician. He talks about equality as a supreme value, but mainly about permits and licenses. It's so simple. Those gathered around him are not happy to hear him defend the right of Jews to live anywhere in the city, "but not as a political demonstration," but are compensated with the description of the construction and development policy that he promises the Palestinians when he is mayor.

What a strange situation: A human envelope of accompanying Palestinians is protecting Gaydamak from physical assault. Not by Arabs, but by the "settlers of Elad" who have made their homes at a high strategic point, right above the head of the election entourage.

After a quick visit to Jaffer's famous candy store in Beit Hanina, they drive to Shuafat. A large group of "dignitaries" is waiting in the home of the Sabih family, who wish the visitor a great victory. The most important visitor is the head of the Tamimi clan, which includes 30,000 family members who are now becoming a potential electorate.

Another black coffee, this time Bedouin style, more stories of discrimination and deprivation. Everything seems very natural. The candidate who doesn't look as though he belongs anywhere can belong everywhere. The question that nobody can answer still remains: How many residents of East Jerusalem will go out to vote for him in the final analysis. The answer could change the face of the elections in Jerusalem.