Do We Deserve Gaydamak?

Those who lived in Israel in the 1980s will remember a popular car sticker that proclaimed: “Maxwell: Buy Me!”. The sticker referred to the late British media mogul Robert Maxwell who at the time was busy buying up Israeli companies, including a leading newspaper. “Buy Me!” was a semi-ironic cry of desperation that symbolised a general feeling of discomfort with the economy and the way the government was running it.

Maxwell is long dead now, buried on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem. But his spirit lives on, having been miraculously reincarnated in Arcadi Gaydamak. This Russian-born billionaire rose to local fame after some particularly distasteful publicity stints: offering free “fun days” for the residents of the southern city of Sderot who are suffering from daily rocket attacks from Gaza; erecting a “tent city” in Tel Aviv for people who fled south from northern Israel during last year’s Second Lebanon War; showing up as a visitor to the Knesset and at the same time telling the press that most parliamentarians were there solely for their salary; and the list goes on. One of his first moves here was to buy Beitar Yerushalayim, a legendary soccer team whose vocal, and sometimes violent, fans have made a semi-God out of him. His latest unsavoury move is an advertising campaign by one of the cellular companies featuring Gaydamak as… himself, the man who can buy anything.

All of this would have been nothing but a distraction, another indicator of the poor taste of some Israelis, who will worship anyone willing to offer them a free gift. But Gaydamak has expressed his intentions to establish a political party and to run for the mayorship of Jerusalem (a post formerly occupied by the current Prime Minister). He has also announced his support for Binyamin Netanyahu, head of the Likud party and a notorious populist himself. The man clearly has aspirations that go beyond buying up faltering Israeli enterprises.

Gaydamak’s background is questionable at best. He is wanted in France for an arms deal in Africa; he travels with an Angolan diplomatic passport to avoid arrest; there are stories circulating about money laundering in Russia and of the unorthodox ways he made his fortune; Israeli police advised the Jewish Agency to reject a $50M donation from him so as to avoid “problematic money” entering a government agency. Although he served in the military here, he spent most of his life outside Israel. His command of Hebrew is minimal. Despite his economic involvement in Israel and all the fanfare around his so-called “good deeds”, he is still viewed by many as an outsider. And yet this man stands a real chance to become a member of the Knesset, perhaps even the mayor of the capital city. His ability to influence the outcome of the next election is not in doubt.

I know we Israelis have done a poor job in electing our politicians in the past, but could we be as bad as to deserve Gaydamak? If this is the case, we have some serious repenting to do this coming weekend…

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