The most powerful man in Israel

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Ehud Olmert’s reputation lies in tatters. Having been shredded by a commission that laid the blame on Olmert for the disastrous campaign last summer that killed thousands of Lebanese civilians without securing the release of the two soldiers that Hezbollah captured. Israelis have lost faith in Olmert’s government to protect them with Dan Haluz, the air force general responsible for the conduct of the war resigning, and Amir Peretz, the defense minister indicating that he will step down soon.
While Olmert was on damage control mode blaming his former air force general and Ariel Sharon’s stroke for the Lebanon disaster, the players and the fans of Betar Jerusalem were celebrating their 5th Israeli Premier League title, with their chairman Arkadi Gaydamak. His son Alexandre Gaydamak, is well known as the owner of Portsmouth FC, also enjoying a rejuvenation of sorts in the English Premiership.
Arkadi Gaydamak is quietly establishing himself as the most powerful man in Israel and a kingpin in its politics by using his purse strings. He set up a tent village in Nitzanim on the beaches of the Mediterranean, to host the thousands of refugees fleeing the north from the Kassam rocket attacks. He paid for a whole scale evacuation of the citizens of Sderot who were coming under relentless Kassam rocket fire from the Hezbollah, to Eilat. A gesture that angered the Olmert government who responded “Do we want to be depicted as a nation that flees from their homes…to five-star hotels? It looks like a declaration of defeat.” However, Gaydamak with these measures, drove home the point that the Olmert government was impotent in protecting the Israeli civilian populace on its own.
Gaydamak recently established his party, Social Justice, dedicated to socio-economic causes. Although he has said that it is not a political party, it could become one very quickly in ‘special circumstances’. He has aligned it with the Likud to strengthen the hand of Bibi Netanyahu. The party could win as many as 25 seats, and in Israel’s coalition politics, this number could prove significant in Netanyahu forming the government. The thrust of Social Justice its its commitment to socio-economic issues benefiting a cross strata of the Israeli populace, as a countervail to Likud’s hard right security platform. In doing so, Gaydamak dismantles the other power contender, Avigdor Lieberman, whose party Yisrael Beietenu seems to cater to Russian immigrants and security issues. In April 2007, he announced his intention to run for the mayorship of Jerusalem, fighting its incumbent Uri Lupolianski.
Many see this as a first step towards his eventual run for Prime Minister. In Israel, at present, there is a power vacuum with Ariel Sharon gone, and with the disillusionment with the present lot of corrupt weak kneed politicians, it creates the right circumstances for someone like Gaydamak, who has made his billions through gun running and money laundering, to be perceived as palatable to a number of Israelis. Gaydamak has been canny enough to put his billions to good use buying up Betar Jerusalem, with its rabidly nationalistic fans, constituting a very strong electoral base. He offset Beitar’s distasteful racial politics highlighted by the Abbas Suan controversy by pumping money into Bnai Sakhnin, an Arab Israeli club playing in the first division, and creating goodwill in Israel’s traditionally neglected constituents. Gaydamak has also contributed millions to social causes.
How all of this flies in Israel, a country that prides itself on its strong tradition of labour and social philanthropism, remains to be seen. There are many who really don’t believe in Arkadi Gaydamak seeing an opportunist using his money to buy favours, as there are others who see him as a viable alternative in a fractured and moribund political climate.

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