Arkady Gaydamak arrives exactly on time at our scheduled venue - the Caravan restaurant in Abu Gosh - with his assistant in tow. If any bodyguards or other members of an entourage are in the vicinity, their presence is not felt. This seems to be as much as a disappointment as a surprise to the staff of the well-known eatery, who, upon hearing of his imminent arrival, smile in excited anticipation. Billionaires tend to have that effect on people. Particularly ones whose business dealings and large donations are under constant scrutiny by the press and the police.
Indeed, after a mere six years in Israel, Gaydamak has become a household name, even among the kids. No wonder, since it's a rare day when the face of the 54-year-old Russian-born billionaire - who spent many years in France before making aliya in 2000 - doesn't appear in the papers or on screen.
Ask any Israeli who Gaydamak is, and he is sure to say something along the lines of, "He's that rich Russian mafia guy who owns Betar." Which, in another country, might be considered more than a little derogatory. In this milieu, however, such statements indicate a kind of quiet respect, if not outright awe, reserved for a certain type of celebrity. Especially one who paid the TV fees for the IDF, so that all the troops could watch the World Cup soccer matches for free.
But who is Gaydamak, really? A former arms-dealer and current money-launderer who was named in the recent Bank Hapoalim scandal? Or a pillar of the world Jewish community - a philanthropist who gives more money to charitable causes every year than most people earn in a lifetime?
That all depends on whom you ask.
Beneficiaries of Gaydamak's generosity - of whom there are many - consider him a godsend. The media tend to promote the police view that given enough time and resources, the truth about where his money came from and why it's going where it goes, will emerge. In the meantime, it is rumors - not official charges - that have been brought and held against him, including, says Gaydamak, in these pages last Friday.
In an hour-long interview, in English, with The Jerusalem Post, Gaydamak refutes claims of criminal activities, calling to task his critics for what he considers to be their envy-based prejudice against Russians with money.
Tell us your side of the story.
According to the article in your paper ["When Bibi Met Arkady: A Curious Match," Friday, June 16], all my pursuits are aimed at "showing off": at creating some kind of public image for myself that doesn't correspond to my real persona. The article also states that my kind of philanthropy goes against the spirit of zedaka [Jewish charity].
Let me set the record straight. Only a small fraction of my activities is known to the public. Within this small fraction, there are issues I believe should be brought to public awareness.
For example, my funding of the soldiers' viewing time of the World Cup soccer games is a message to Israeli society about the need for expressing solidarity with our soldiers.
Another example relates to the important issue of the Druze community in this country. At a ceremony for Druze soldiers, I was given the honor of speaking before the Defense Minister precisely because I am the provider of financial support for the enhancement of Druze education and other charities for the Druze association.
Give some examples of your anonymous activities.
Ten days ago, I was invited to attend the kick-off broadcast of the World Cup games with soldiers on a navy base. On the wall of the area in which we were seated, I noticed the inscription: "Built with the donation of [the French non-profit organization] Keren Or." Well, I give money to Keren Or, and nobody knew that, as they have no idea about things I've financed in Mitzpe Ramon or Eilat.
Another example: Yesterday [Thursday] evening, I was invited to the wedding of the son of the director of Tel Hashomer hospital. And he told me, "You know, two weeks ago, we saved the life of a two-year-old girl who had been in an accident." And this was done in the new wing of the trauma center I built some years ago.
Another example: Rabbi Ovadia Yosef invited me to the wedding of his granddaughter. I was seated between him and Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau. Rabbi Lau said, "You know, your face looks familiar to me." And I said, "Yes, we were together at the opening of a synagogue in Petah Tikva dedicated to the dozens of soldiers killed in the helicopter disaster [in February 1997] ." And he said, "Yes, yes, I remember, it is a very beautiful synagogue that was built by a French businessman who asked to remain anonymous."
Well, I built that synagogue, and when I did, the local rabbi wanted to call it after me or my parents. When I declined, he suggested dedicating it to the memory of the brother of one of the members of the local community. Just then, I was informed of the helicopter disaster. That's when I told him to name it for the soldiers killed in the crash. Subsequently, the families of all those soldiers began to congregate annually at that synagogue as a kind of support group.
Another example: Many people donate money to Magen David. Usually, their names are put on the doors of the ambulances. But I give that organization money to pay for gas and salaries, and nobody knows about it.
When I give publicly, I have two goals in mind. The first, as I mentioned, is to send a message of solidarity. The second is to present a different image of Israeli society from that of merely a war-torn country with internecine strife to one of a vibrant culture that enjoys physical activities like sports. Today, hundreds of millions of people in the sports community around the world now know that Israel has professional sports.
Still, you have become one of the most famous - or infamous - people in Israel.
Reputations are built on what other people say. Because I am written about daily in the newspapers, everybody knows my name, but that doesn't mean they really know who I am. There is a natural tendency for competition and envy which people like me arouse. I attract jealousy.
Think about how I appear to the average citizen - as a source of negative and positive comparison to their own lives. Imagine a couple sitting at home eating their soup in front of the TV. The wife sees me and blames her husband for not earning enough money to provide her the kind of lifestyle she craves. The husband then says, "Look, maybe I'm not rich like this guy, but at least I'm honest." In other words, I'm the kind of man people need subconsciously to consider bad.
Is this specifically an Israeli characteristic, or is it something you experienced elsewhere?
No, no, not specifically Israeli. This is true of all people. It's a human tendency.
And the rumors, based on police investigations, have nothing to do with your reputation?
You're referring to the allegations of so-called "money-laundering" that have been following me around for more than a year, without anybody saying anything concrete about what it was I was supposed to have done.
Let me show you a document. [Here, Gaydamak produces a mimeograph of a Justice Ministry letter, in English, addressed to the "competent authorities of the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg," and signed by the deputy director of the department of international affairs at the office of the State Attorney on November 23, 2004. The letter is a "request for assistance in a criminal matter," and outlines a series of "international dealings in arms, oil, diamonds, metals, and other items." It also states that Gaydamak was declared by France to be a fugitive in 2000, the year he left that country and settled in Israel.] It says here that I am suspected of having transferred $100 million from my Bank Hapoalim account in the year 2000. It also says that, in accordance with Israeli law, it is necessary to obtain authorization from the Bank of Israel before any such transaction can be made. It claims that my failure to obtain such authorization constitutes a violation of the law.
Well, let me tell you with certainty that I never had an account in Bank Hapoalim in the year 2000, nor did I ever transfer $100 million, nor is there any such law stating that authorization must be obtained from the Bank of Israel for money transfers. This was police fabrication aimed at providing an explanation for its investigations. Which brings me to the subject of the criminal behavior of the police.
Israel has existed in the heart of the Jewish People for thousands of years. Just because it was created physically only a few dozen years ago, this doesn't mean we're allowed to forget that it's a Jewish state. But many people - such as those in the yahbal (international crimes unit), "General Danino" [Cmdr. Yohanan Danino, head of police operations] - seem to have forgotten this fact. When I arrived in Israel six years ago, they immediately began investigating me. Why? Because in Israel, whenever a rich Russian appears on the scene, he is targeted for investigation. So, when I arrived in 2000, I was immediately targeted. To justify the many millions of shekels the police spent coming up with nothing, they had to continue digging deeper and deeper.
Six years later, when they understood that they'd come up with nothing, and that I had become a well-known figure with a distinctive voice, they began to make announcements about wrong-doing on my part.
This document clearly shows this was all a huge conspiracy.
Let me point to another indication that it's a conspiracy: my purchase of Radio 99. When I bought it, all of a sudden, I heard that Attorney General Menahem Mazuz, requested to examine the legality of the purchase.
On the one hand, I have always thought it was a good thing for the state to have some kind of moral arbitrator whose job it is to safeguard the public interest. So, why in the private context - where he can't even legally determine the facts - is he taking such an interest? Why shouldn't I be given a license to run a private radio station? I am a citizen just like everybody else. The very fact of his request sends a subconscious message to me to "be careful."
I don't know if it was right of Mr. Mazuz to do it. And I want to tell Mr. Mazuz that I'm a citizen the state of Israel, with exactly the same rights as him. Not more and not less. Please - I'm asking him publicly - to explain why he has made a request to check this transaction.
Again, we mustn't forget the negative impact this has on the Jewish state. For example, the stupid action taken by the police of creating a case against Bank Hapoalim in order to frame me will lead to billions of dollars being withdrawn from the Israeli banking system. And it will take years and years before the Jews bring money to Israel, all because of this stupid indictment against Hapoalim.
I'm not talking here about myself specifically - or of the harm this has done to my children, who have to read such horrible things about their father, and who have to see me taken in the middle of the night by the police.
None of this, of course, is coincidental. Why do you suppose it is that from 2000 to 2005, no claims were made - and then in 2005, suddenly, on the day I announced the possible creation of Betar as a political party, the whole thing came out?
Some people suggested political competitors were behind the whole affair. No, this is not it. The police are simply afraid because my voice became too loud. And they understood that the day I enter politics, it will be very difficult for them to continue their injustices. I am not speaking as an individual who wants to spotlight the injustice against myself. I'm speaking as a citizen of Israel - as a Jew: How long will we continue to permit those people to get away with such crimes against individuals and against the whole country? Our soldiers are losing their lives in the fight for the survival of the Jewish nation. But irresponsible behavior like that of the yahbal hinders this, and for what? To put a black mark on the wealthy and creative Russian community? The Russians who made aliya 30 years ago - the ones thought of as "babushkas," who arrived with little revenue and lived in small development towns - satisfy the need [on the establishment's part] to feel superior. But when they see Russian billionaires, world-leading business people, pillars of their communities, it's a different story. Why wouldn't Israel welcome such people, who are respected the world over? This kind of scapegoating is against the Zionist spirit and the Jewish spirit.
Why do Russian immigrants get stereotyped either as "babushkas" or oligarchs?
Those labels indicate complete ignorance, small-mindedness and jealousy. The Russian Jewish community is made up of millions of good, hard-working Jews who can bring only good things to Israel. I, for example, am the president of the Congress of Jewish Communities of Russia and I've never done anything wrong in my life. I am a Zionist. I am a Jew. From the very first day I arrived here when I was young and I went to a kibbutz and worked like everybody else in the fields and the chicken coops. I never received any help from the state. When I returned many years later, some said that I came to use Israel as a shelter. They forgot that the state of Israel was created to protect Jews. I'm proud that Israel is a shelter. Anyone who doesn't think Israel should be a shelter for the Jews should leave. I stand behind every word I've told you about this huge conspiracy. And I won't keep quiet about demanding a public inquiry into the criminal misconduct of the authorities in the Bank Hapoalim case, even going so far as to falsify information in their request for assistance from the Luxembourg authorities. Proof that it's all a fabrication lies in the fact that what is being called the "biggest money-laundering operation in history" hasn't even resulted in an arrest.
Why do you think "police operations" was out to get you? Who put them up to it?
As I said, it's the stupid assumption that if a Russian is rich, he must be a criminal.
What is your opinion of Avigdor Lieberman and Natan Sharansky?
Mr. Lieberman is not a Russian. He's a Russian-speaking Israeli. He's never been in Russia, and he knows nothing about Russia.
Mr. Sharansky knows the Soviet Union. He had a very particular image that the Soviet authorities used to concentrate the huge media and political force of the Jewish community around the world on the [slogan] "Free Sharansky."
You don't consider them leaders of the Russian community in Israel?
What do you mean by "leaders"? That they have electoral clout?
If you compare them to me - though I don't want to run for election - there's no competition. Take the Druze community, for example, that is made up of only 130,000 people. Their sheikhs told me that if I were to enter politics, they would ask their community to back me.
Then there are the Israeli-Arabs. Due to their situation, many of them don't vote in protest. But they told me that they would vote for me because they like me. In East Jerusalem, I contribute to many charities.
Then, there's the so-called Sephardim. They would vote for me. And do you know why these three communities would vote for me? Because they don't identify with me enough to be envious of me. I am from a completely different world from them.
Now, let's speak about the Russians. Maybe 30 percent of the Russians identify with and envy me. This is why only 70% of the Russian community would vote for me.
Among the so-called educated Ashkenazi population, half are subconsciously jealous. Those are the ones that would use the stereotype of "Russian mafia member" against me. They would never admit to the real reason for opposing me.
If what I am is "Russian mafia," then I'm proud to be a member of the Russian mafia [Here he laughs for the first time during the interview].
What I am saying is that if I were to run for election, I would garner a majority of the votes.
It has been said of you that when you are interviewed in Russian - on TV, for example - that you speak differently.
Only the language - the tool of communication - is different, not the content. I think that from an electoral point of view, I'm the most popular person in this country, and I have not yet said one word in Hebrew. B'hodesh haba adaber ivrit (Next month, I'll speak Hebrew). Then you'll see.
Are you studying Hebrew?
Maybe I know it already. You know, many Israelis in the business community and the media act as though they feel superior to me. What I want to ask them is: How many of them have made as much money in business as I have, and how many have been as successful at PR, in spite of my broken English?