Monday, February 19, 2007

The Gaydamak Phenomenon

Arkadi Gaydamak (Channel 10 Screenshot: Lenta.Ru)

The Russian-Israeli billionaire Arkadi Gaydamak, known for his shady connections and political ambitions, hopes to establish a new political party that will focus entirely on social and economic issues, Ha'aretz reports. Apparently, Gaydamak "supports the market economy, increased taxation for high earners and a significantly stronger welfare state." Interestingly enough, he is coordinating his activities with that great apostle of social democracy, Bibi Netanyahu. The model for his party? Shas.

There is no doubt in my mind that Gaydamak could earn a lot of votes in the next elections. Many towns in Israel today have charities and centers endowed by him, and many residents of the north remember his largesse during the Lebanon war. Gaydamak was able to step in where the government miserably failed people. Likewise, Gaydamak has been very active in the south, where, among other things, he paid for Sderot residents to take "Qassam vacations" in Eilat.

To get a sense of Gaydamak's political style, it is worth checking out an Israeli portal dedicated to him (supposedly by unconnected admirers). It features a video showing still shots of the billionaire in various leadership poses together with rabbis, politicians, and football players. The chorus of the catchy song in the background, which features the voices of several well-known Israeli musicians (or people who sound like them), speaks of "giving one's soul and one's heart."

I have long thought that Gaydamak was hoping to win a seat in the Knesset so that he could gain immunity from any future criminal proceedings against him. But even if he does not choose to run on his party's list, he is primed to exert tremendous influence on the Israeli political system. Confidence in the government and state institutions is at an all-time low. Social discontent is high, as are general feelings of insecurity. Both of these can be exploited by a populist outsider, such as Gaydamak, working in tandem with the self-styled Mr. Security, Netanyahu.

It is strange to think that less than a year ago, shortly after the last Israeli elections, many people thought that Bibi and the Likud were finished. Now, they are emerging as the big winners, precisely because they were not part of the current government, which is shaping up to be one of the worst in the country's history. Bibi opposed the disengagement from Gaza; today he can point to the Qassams and the abduction of Gilad Shalit as proof that he was right. Bibi was one of the few Israeli leaders who appeared like a statesman during the Lebanon war, and he emerged squeaky clean in its aftermath. And finally, whatever Olmert does, Bibi can continue to attack him for his failure to deal adequately with the treat posed by Iran.

The big loser, besides Kadima, is the Labor Party. Peretz's reign over Labor and his role in Olmert's government can only be described as disastrous. Would any ordinary Israeli be able to point at a single positive accomplishment by the Minister of Defense? And has Labor been able to exert any noticeable influence on the social agenda? Nyet and nyet - which brings us to Avigdor Liberman. Ha'aretz predicts that Gaydamak's new party would compete with Yisrael Beitenu for votes among Russian immigrants. But Gaydamak's appeal would be much larger than the Russians, and I see no reason why his party would not sit in a coalition with Liberman.

Of course, much depends on the ability of the current government to weather the storms that have been rattling its foundations at least since August. And there are two things that Olmert and Peretz do well: stay in power and eliminate internal rivals. But when they finally leave, they will take the whole ship with them. Sure, some deluded optimists will put their money on Tsipi Livni, perhaps supported by someone like Dalia Itzik. But when Olmert and Peretz turn off the lights, even Livni will not be able to avoid paying the consequences for her association with their rule.

Shelly Yahimovich

The real heroes of Israeli democracy - people like MKs Shelly Yahimovich (a tireless rookie Labor backbencher and former media personality who actually gets things done) and Zehava Gal-On (Meretz) - will not be able to counter the millions commanded by Gaydamak and co. I hate to say it, but I think Israel is headed for a Bibi-Gaydamak-Liberman-Shas government; and you can throw the settlers into that mix too. בתאבון (Bon appetit).


Lisa said...

Geez, thanks for ruining my breakfast.

I fear you may be right, but I hope you are wrong.

Rebecca said...

Oy, anti-democratic, populist, as hardline as possible, and religious fundamentalism - what a great combination! I definitely hope you're wrong. Speaking selfishly as an American Jewish supporter of Israel, it would make my efforts to defend Israel that much harder with a government like that. And speaking not-so-selfishly, I think it would be a major disaster for Israel.

Anonymous said...

It will not work. Others have tried it like the other fellow that the french were looking after, just like G. At the most he will get 5-8 MP and it will be one time affair. The real trouble is the Israeli so called left which have prostituted the term and unlike in Europe is totally anti patriotic pro-arab. Haaretz which economically and socially is miles to the right of Thacher-Bush is the best example. So is Bailin, so is Galon. They and Haartez are totally and absolutly anti union anti labor pro privatization pro capital so how can they attract votes of middle class, hired and salaried people who are more and more marginalized.

Noah Kaye said...

Yeah, this dude is huge...

Carmia said...

Guydamak was voted as the second most popular leader amongst Israeli youngsters, after Ovadia Yosef!

Jeha said...

I do not know much about the guy, but a thought keeps nagging; he does have to recoup his PR investment somehow, which makes politics the next logical move.

But one has to admit; during the summer, he was among the few who were acting smartly, as compared to Haluz who was reportedly selling some assets in his portfolio hours after the kidnapping...

Anonymous said...

In the blog cited by you and praizing G. it says he hold a diplomatic Canadian passport. I S I T P O S S I B L E ?
Israel has promised Canada no more plays with Can. pas.
Moshe The innuit, of the first People

Rob said...

Sounds like you believe the Palestinians capable of peaceful actions. I do not! Sorry to say and while I know the dynamics of the world are working against Israel. Israel has to be smart enough to say Enough of Us making all the peace. The Palestinians have Gaza and what do they do ? Elect a government of murderers who seek the destruction of Israel.
Now Israel is on the defensive when it should be basking in the sunshine of peace gestures. I say keep the Palestinians week for 20 years or more until they show they can govern even Gaza. When they stop importing weapons and blowing up and killing Israeli citizens then Israel can talk of peace and land giving. Until then the Israel needs to say ENOUGH! I do not care who says it. Now is the time to stop letting the world bully Israel into a sorry state like it now is in compared to before the PLO was brought into the territories Gaza and west bank.
Israel needs to minimize its enemies - Weaken them and go on to become the strongest ecnomic and military power in the world. A fortress of sorts oh and for crying out loud they need a government that makes babies more important than graft. Every Israeli household needs on average 5+ children if Israel is to survive
They need free daycare and better public schools