The Oligarch's Visit

Gaydamak's activities invite debate. Has the time not come to limit the desire of recently arrived Jews to be included in the leadership of the country?

In the play "The Visit" by Friedrich Duerrenmatt, the heroine, Claire, returns to the town where she grew up to buy her way into the hearts of its inhabitants and avenge the wrong done to her in her youth. When Arcadi Gaydamak, who will announce the establishment of his political party tomorrow, acquires influence in Israel, he does so in a country where he is a stranger, whose language he does not speak, whose culture and way of life are alien to him. And yet he presumes to be one of its leaders.

Moreover, in Duerrenmatt's play, the old lady's return is meant to correct a miscarriage of justice, while Gaydamak's involvement in Israel is accompanied by the suspicion that his acts are designed to free himself from the attention of the authorities in other countries.

As was predicted a long time ago, Gaydamak will arrive tomorrow at a major station to which he has long aspired: to place a large foot on the threshold of the Israeli political arena. The announcement of the party's establishment is still camouflaged; it is described as a purely administrative step that turns "Social Justice," the "social movement" that he founded, into a political party.

Gaydamak continues to be presented as having no intention to get involved in the Knesset or the cabinet, and as seeking to become mayor of Jerusalem. But his intentions are transparent: just as his grandstanding philanthropic activities were intended to buy his public status, the function of the party he is establishing is to create an infrastructure to pave his way to the Knesset and government.

Even if there is nothing to the suspicion that this whole move is only to provide him with immunity from investigation or prosecution, domestic or foreign, Gaydamak's activities invite debate. Has the time not come to limit the desire of Jews who recently arrived here to be included in the country's leadership? To be more precise, these are Jews to whom the Law of Return grants automatic Israeli citizenship the moment they enter the country; those who are not Jews must pass bothersome tests to become citizens.

Ostensibly, the demand to place limitations on a citizen seeking election to the Knesset contradicts a basic principle; the right to be elected is no less basic than the right to vote. And yet, even advanced countries place certain conditions on those who would seek office in their legislatures: continuous residence in the country, giving up double citizenship, proven knowledge of its history and literature.

In Israel the situation is different: All individuals may present their candidacy to the Knesset (unless they have a criminal can of worms in their past), with the only stipulation that they be at least 21 years old. Other democracies suffice with similar conditions, but in those countries, there are obstacles on the way to citizenship. For example, a person who is not native-born must prove a bond to the country and its culture. In Israel, Jewish immigrants become citizens within a day. The next day they may become candidates to the Knesset, even if the country is foreign to them.

Gaydamak is taking advantage of this loophole. He has had Israeli citizenship since the 1970s (when he came here to live for six months), but he is more a passing guest than a permanent resident. Here and there Gaydamak does business in Israel, proving his interest in it, but he does not speak the language and is perceived as foreign.

There are cases (like that of Stanley Fischer) in which the country invites eminent Jews to come and serve. That is not the case with Gaydamak. He initiated his involvement in public life and is paving his way to the country's leadership through generous contributions. His moves appear to be tactics designed to serve a hidden agenda, a crude example of working toward elected office by means of money. He wants to be mayor of Jerusalem, a city that is a symbol, where he does not live permanently (although he has a home there). And it is so typical that he cannot communicate with its municipal employees and residents because he does not know their language.

On second thought, perhaps Gaydamak is proving that he is truly connected to Israel. Like Claire in Duerrenmatt's play, he has perceived its provinciality and studied its inhabitants' souls. It's easy to buy one's way into their hearts.