The Third Force

In order to cut energy costs, the government turned out the light at the end of tunnel, say the Israelis. Déjà-vu descended on the political scene, making it so dark that a cat needs a torch to get around. Shop-soiled once-rejected politicians Barak and Netanyahu creep back to power, while Ehud Olmert waits for his turn to be rejected and re-cycled later.

At this low point, a powerful new personality is soaking up much of the waning limelight. You can’t open an Israeli newspaper without reading his name; his face looks at you from posters on the streets; every conversation, every Parliamentary hearing or TV debate brings you the man. He is Arcadi Gaydamak, the man who wants to save Israel.

He is an Israeli Ross Perot. A reminder for young people: Ross Perot was the son of a Texas cotton-picker, who “made it” in the data business, became a billionaire and tried to save the US by running for the presidency. In hindsight, it is pity he did not win: Perot was an American patriot of a soft conservative-isolationist ilk; he was for quality education, repairing US cities, against Middle East military adventures and outsourcing. Democrats and Republicans united to bury him and marched to Iraq over his [politically] dead body.

Gaydamak often sounds like Perot, when he attacks Israeli professional politicians for their corruption and lack of concern for ordinary people, and his message is well received – Israelis justifiably hold their politicians in low esteem. The politicians repay him with unmitigated hostility: he succeeds in uniting the Israeli right- and left-wing just as did the Lebanese war. The pundits, the Masters of Israeli Discourse, hate him even more, for he was not created by them. The journalists and reporters are invariably hostile and outright rude to him, never sparing an accusation or innuendo. But he is extremely popular with the hoi polloi, with the pre-Zionist Old Yeshuv, that is, with Sephardi Jews and the poor Jewish Orthodox families of Jerusalem, with non-elite immigrant communities – Moroccans and Russians, and with the Palestinians of Galilee. They like him for his panache, for his generosity and compassion, for his straight talk, but first of all for his sponsorship of soccer teams, of the Jerusalem Sephardi Beitar and of the Galilean Arab Sakhnin.

His new party called Social Justice is a new and potentially powerful Third Force in the Israeli political structure. Israeli voters are usually dissatisfied with existing parties (aren’t we all?), but (as opposed to the UK and the US) the Israeli election system allows for this dissatisfaction to be expressed in the voting booth. Thus, a third force party broke the long Labour Party rule in 1977, and quite recently a Retirees Party also made considerable inroads. Even the ruling Kadima party is a “third force”, positioned between the Labour and Likud. Thus it is quite possible that Mr Gaydamak will find a prominent place at the top, whether in the government or – as he says – at the helm of Jerusalem, where he is extremely popular. Jerusalem could be the starting point for his rise to the PrimeMinistership – Ehud Olmert was mayor of Jerusalem to start with. This is right time to sit up and pay attention to the rising Mr Gaydamak, for he is the man who could break the present impasse. He has guts and he has good will and compassion, again like Perot. True, Third Force candidates are rather unpredictable, but the mainstream candidates are a sure thing — worthless!

Competing parties of the left and right work hard to undermine his legitimacy: he is not an easy man to control; he has an independent mind and he can’t be bought. The right says that he is an Arab-lover (an accusation similar to ‘nigger-lover’ of the Deep South) or a Russian spy sent by Putin, the left… Well, the Israeli left is an aristocratic elitist body like the Daughters of the American Revolution, and they are always ready to knife anybody who did not sail with the Zionist Mayflower. Left-wing politician Colonel Ran Cohen introduced a bill against Gaydamak, which stopped just short of banning him personally: he objected to a man using his money directly instead of doing it via an obedient politician. Gaydamak returns the fight: he accused Olmert of starting the Lebanon War in order to improve his falling ratings. Though you can read of that in Counterpunch, you rarely hear such views being expressed in Israel.

The man’s origins provide a key to both the elite hostility and the mass popularity. Gaydamak came to Israel in 1972 as an impecunious Russian immigrant who could only hope for low-end temporary jobs. Stagnate and restrictive Israel was not the place for a man on the go, and the dynamic 20-year old moved on to France. After many adventures capped with a Légion d’honneur ribbon as proof, he “made it”, became a billionaire, returned for a while to his native Moscow, and some two years ago came back to Israel.

He took Israel by storm. At first, we saw him as a local boy who made it good elsewhere and came back to show off. An Israeli Great Gatsby, of sorts. Wonderfully dressed, lithe, fast as a tennis player, he established himself in Caesarea, a villa beach community of wealthy aristocrats halfway between Tel Aviv and Haifa, threw a lot of lavish receptions, and generously supported worthy causes.

But Israel is not the US of Scott Fitzgerald days; under its easy-going democratic ways there is the strict authoritarian pecking order of a more primitive tribal society. You are nobody unless you have a lot of Arab scalps under your belt; you are nobody if your father did not serve in Palmach or Irgun, the Zionist guerrilla bands of pre-1948. An impeccable wealthy gentleman with a philanthropic touch would be knighted in modern England; Gaydamak was as soundly rejected by the Israeli upper class as an American upstart in Henry James’ novels. Eventually he got in, but this traumatic experience probably influenced his next steps:

He did not follow the route of other wealthy Jews who often visit or even settle in Israel — he was not satisfied with his comfortable life at the Mediterranean Sea, with rubbing shoulders in the company of Prime Minister, with visiting settlements and military bases, with cutting ribbons and naming buildings after himself, though he did all that. He discovered the illness of Israeli society and began to speak his mind and act, and to act in quite unusual manner.

While Israeli public figures and visiting Jewish businessmen usually compete in ferociously chauvinist rhetoric, Gaydamak struck a completely different tone: he called for equality and prosperity for all citizens, Jews and Arabs alike. He said that the solution lies in achieving prosperity for both Israelis and Palestinians. At the same time, he considers himself a believing and pious Jew, and often refers to Jewish ethics. Apparently Gaydamak has an unusual, but also possible reading of Jewish tradition. In an interview to the Time magazine he said:

“I am a great believer in possibility of peace. Some people misunderstood my reference to Jewish tradition as a nationalist shibboleth, as a desire to exclude and marginalize Arabs. Nothing could be further from truth. I believe in humanism of Jewish tradition. It is impossible for Jews to be happy and content as long as their neighbours suffer. We should not push the Arab population to be under the extremist influence. In my view, it is the Palestinian living standards that should be increased. It does not have to be done at the Israeli taxpayer’s expense: the Palestinians are able to cope if we don’t block their development.”

For these words, he was accused by nationalist media for admitting that Israel blocks the development of Palestinian territories. Though Israeli army strangulates all activity in the occupied territories by means of roadblocks and other blockades, this is usually denied by Israeli officials.

More uncommon is his compassion for the ordinary Israeli. During the Lebanon War last summer, when the Israeli left and right spoke of beating the hell out of the Northern neighbour, Gaydamak attended to the needy ones: he organized and paid for a summer camp for thousands of Galilee residents who preferred to stay far away from the deadly missile rain. He was accused by media of anti-Zionist behaviour: a good Zionist, they say, should rather die than retreat. But the ordinary people of Galilee were grateful, because they had no intention of dying in order to make a point.

In the confrontation with Hamas, he also took an unusual line. While Israeli politicians demanded the ruin of Gaza, Gaydamak took care of poor residents of Sderot, a small border town bombed by Hamas. He sent coaches and ferried the inhabitants to take a rest in the luxurious resort of Eilat. This made Olmert mad at him: Olmert, and the government, prefers to reap political benefits from the suffering of ordinary Israelis. Gaydamak was accused of doing his good deeds in order to ingratiate himself with the people; but the people were happy that somebody cared for them.

The Israeli establishment fears him because he is trying to upset the apple cart of Israeli politics. In such cases, whenever an outsider becomes too visible, the bosses send for the police. This was the case with prominent Sephardi leader Arye Deri: police followed him for ten years, until they succeeded in patching together a case against him and putting him in jail. Other Sephardi leaders: General Mordecai (who was dangerously close to the PM seat) and ex-President Katzav were also disgraced by means fair and foul. It is a mistake to believe that the legal system can be dishonest for Arabs and honest for Jews: if it was permitted once, the system stays dishonest. The judges who justify Jewish killers of Arabs are perfectly able to imprison a Jew who is considered dangerous for the regime. Meanwhile, accusations against Gaydamak do not stick, but the system does not relent.

There is a media campaign against him, of rather crude kind. If he is Russian, they say, he’s got to be a KGB agent. If he is wealthy he’s got to be crook. If he is in Israel, he’s got to be in need of refuge. But he is not fragile, this Mr Gaydamak. I had the real pleasure of watching him some time ago on TV: he was invited to appear on a show the same way a bull is invited to a bullfight; but it was the matadors who were carried out from the arena on stretchers. Since Galloway’s fighting of a hostile reporter from SkyNews, I have not witnessed such ability to withstand an attack on the air. The man on the other side was the infamous Matti Golan, ex-chief editor of Haaretz, who said once that he hates all Germans. It turned out he hates all Russians as well. He was complaining about why anybody would attention to Gaydamak at all, as he does not belong to the Salt of the Earth (this is the appellation for real true-blue Israelis).

This media onslaught was rather counterproductive for it made him an underdog and brought him much sympathy. “He is a criminal!” a reporter would ask the public, and will get “We do not think so” in response. Indeed, there are many accusations against Gaydamak, though none is confirmed. For us, none is relevant. They accuse him of arming the legitimate government of Angola in its fight against CIA man Savimbi and his South Africa-armed Unita. Gaydamak denies it; but even if it were true, this qualifies as a good deed in my book. Savimbi was a horrible creature, always reneging on peace settlements and bloodying Angola. They accuse Gaydamak of being charitable for political purposes; but that can be said about any philanthropist. They accuse him of keeping his money outside of the grasping hands of Israeli justice, but this is just prudence.

Meanwhile, he continues to spread his charity. He provided the poor religious Jews with a hospital. His political capital grows. Now he starred in a commercial of a mobile telephone company, being modelled on a socialist Russian Zionist who founded the kibbutz movement a hundred years ago. In the clip, he drops his elegant attire and joins the working masses. With this clip, he rose to the status of Culture Hero. “This is undignified! Netanyahu would never do it!” – insisted media. “I am the man in the street”, he retorted.

Gaydamak is probably today the most popular Israeli personality with humane views. He speaks of bringing to power the coalition of the powerless: Sephardis, Russians, Palestinians, workers, religious Jews, the whole hog of hoi polloi. Nobody has yet succeeded in squeezing from him a denunciation of Arabs, or support for an attack on Palestinians, though it is considered to be de rigueur in the polite society of Israel. He is an opposite to Lieberman, another Russian politician, who made his name by extreme nationalist slogans. He is a black sheep in the company of Russian Jewish oligarchs as he keeps his foothold in Moscow and does not fight Putin, as Nevzlin and Berezovsky do. And he wants to save Israel, as he said in TV interview. God knows, Israel needs somebody to save her from her own deprivation.

An unlikely saviour, a leader of dispossessed in a white Cadillac? On the second thought, a poor man won’t be able to make himself heard. It is easier for a camel to squeeze through a needle’s eye, but who needs a squeezed camel? It is harder for a rich man, but still possible. Wealth is not a major and irredeemable fault in my book.

His decision to run for the mayor of Jerusalem gives us a chance to try the One State model in One City. Our good friends Noam Chomsky and Michael Neumann promote the Two States’ idea, while our friends on our side, Virginia Tilley, Roger Tucker and others speak for One State – but probably no one understands that this is not a theoretical question. Jerusalem’s population includes some 30 to 40 per cent Palestinians who are entitled to vote in the city elections. They are entitled, but they do not vote: they were told that there will be Two States, and East Jerusalem will be a part of Palestine. So they have waited for forty years, and meanwhile Jerusalem has become less and less hospitable for them. The City Hall carries on endless warfare against the Palestinians of Jerusalem. They have a means of defence: to vote in the municipal elections; but they do not use it, to great relief of the Jewish extremists.

A few years ago, during the last elections, I spoke to many prominent Jerusalemites about participating; but nobody dared to break the mould. They did not believe that they would be able to change the way of things and still hoped that the PNA will lead them to freedom. Maybe now, as Mahmoud Abbas has turned his coat and converted the PNA into a branch of Israeli security, they will understand their error and vote en masse. They can form a third of city council, while another third will be formed by poor Sephardis and religious Jews.
With Gaydamak, they Palestinians have a chance to cause cosmic change and win the city – not for themselves only, but for themselves as well. He is not a revolutionary, he is not even a radical, but this rather conservative man has a positive idea of equality and fair play, a flair for business and uncommon organisational ability. Being brought up in the Soviet Union, he has no racist or religious prejudice. With him, the Palestinians may retire the good-hearted Jeff Halter and make redundant his Committee against House Demolitions. Without him, they are doomed to suffer. Probably this man offers us the best chance for a change, for a good life in One City, and this chance may lead to One State. Let us not waste it!

Israel Shamir is a critically acclaimed and respected Russian Israeli writer. He has written extensively and translated Joyce and Homer into Russian. He lives in Jaffa, is a Christian, and an outspoken critic of Israel and Zionism.