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.
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).