Saturday, July 14, 2007

Israel as New Arcadia: the rich Russian rushin' to power

The Social Justice Party, a brand new right-wing political group launched this week, is the brainchild of the charismatic and flamboyant Russian billionaire, Arcadi Gaydamak. The Ukrainian, who is 54, settled in Israel 35 years ago, and has built up a huge following among Israel's one million Russian emigres. He also supports the interests of the country's Orthodox Jews and Israeli-Arabs, and appeals to the 20 per cent of Israelis who live below the poverty line.
Gaydamak, who owns one of Israel's leading football team, captivates pragmatists who are fed up with the blunders and excuses of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, whose approval rating is in the single digits. Unsurprisingly, Gaydamak is a close ally of the opposition Likud leader and ex-Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. Likud would be one of the main beneficiaries if Mr Gaydamak's party performs well in the next elections, almost guaranteeing Netanyahu's return to the top spot.
Gaydamak does not envision a national role for himself just yet. He wants to be the next mayor of Jerusalem and promote business. "I am the most popular man in Israel," he has boasted, after headline-grabbing stunts like safeguarding the rocket-rattled evacuees of Sderot in tent cities for which he paid out of his own deep pockets. Or proposing to ban pork products from supermarket shelves because selling such meat is "a provocation" to devout Jews and Muslims. (He later wiggled out of the lucrative Tiv Taam supermarket deal when it threatened to erode his political support maong secular Jews and Russian immigrants)
His broad appeal is reflected among the founders of the new Social Justice Party. These include a Bedouin Israeli army officer, the president of an association that helps the handicapped, and a apparatchik from the former Soviet Union. There are some questions looming over his rise to prominence.
Intriguingly, the well-travelled Mr Gaydamak (who alternatively spells his name Arkady Gaidamak!)holds Angolan, Canadian, Israeli and French passports and he doesn't speak a word of Hebrew. Wanted in France in connection with allegations of illegal arms sales to Angola in the early 1990s, Gaydamak emphatically denies any wrongdoing.
His office insists Mr Gaydamak "has not broken any laws in France or elsewhere. In Israel, Arcadi Gaydamak is not the object of any judicial investigations and all rumours are spread by the representatives of the French administration and [Gaydamak's] rivals in business and politics".
He definitely is the dark horse in Israeli politics.

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