Arkadi Gaydamak 88 298.
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Arkadi Gaydamak might be a billionaire but he is trying to build an image as an underdog, a brave outsider storming the ramparts of the establishment.
His soccer team, Betar Jerusalem, the perennial challenger to Maccabi Haifa and the wealthy Tel Aviv clubs, fits in fine with this image. Today Betar might be every bit as wealthy as its rivals and number the prime minister among its principal supporters, but the club prefers to live in the past and fans still believe that every adverse whistle is part of a long-standing animus toward its Sephardi nationalistic roots.
Betar was Gaydamak's first Israeli purchase, only a year and a half ago. Since then he's gone on a spending spree, and he's interested in much more than trophies and companies; he's got enough of those already.
Gaydamak is trying to buy acceptance and recognition. He might barely speak Hebrew but he has a keen eye for media and PR. The way he recognized the opportunity offered by the government's inaction when northerners were being bombarded by Hizbullah last summer and the speed with which he set up his giant encampment for the northern evacuees on Nitzanim Beach demonstrated the instincts that enabled a penniless Russian emigrant to transform into an international tycoon.
He did it again when he sent Sderot youngsters for a few days of respite in Eilat, once again highlighting the government's shortcomings. This initiative transformed him from a shady oligarch, suspected of money-laundering and shunned by most mainstream politicians, into the national benefactor, friend to the poor and downtrodden, and a threat to the corrupt high and mighty.
Wednesday's Tel Aviv Stock Exchange announcement by the Israel Land Development Co. (Haksharat Hayishuv), owner of Ma'ariv, that they were in talks to sell 50 percent of their shares to Gaydamak, heralded what could be his most significant purchase yet. His office said a few hours later that he had dropped out of the deal, but their was more than a hint that this wasn't his last word on the subject. The speculation is that Gaydamak wants majority control.
Ma'ariv has lost NIS 58 million in the first three quarters of 2006. Other billionaires checked it out in recent months, among them LA-based Israeli-American mogul Haim Saban and US casino tycoon Sheldon Adelson, but backed off.
Gaydamak probably believes he would be able to turn a profit with ILDC, but that isn't why a tycoon becomes a media mogul. Nor was it the reason Ya'acov Nimrodi bought Ma'ariv for his son, Ofer, in 1992 in the first place. Both Gaydamak and Nimrodi know of businesses where the profits are much higher than in the precarious world of print journalism, but the allure of owning the country's second largest daily is irresistible.
Ma'ariv didn't buy Ofer Nimrodi respectability, mainly due to his entanglements with the law, but it did give him a feeling of power not available to other businessmen of similar wealth. But now the losses have accumulated and the Nimrodis have no choice but to sell.
The paper is tailor-made for Gaydamak. Under Nimrodi and his editor-in-chief, Amnon Dankner, Ma'ariv waged war against its rivals, the monopolistic empire of Yediot Aharonot and the elitist Haaretz, fashioning itself as the antiestablishment paper.
Gaydamak won't have to change anything except the paper's support for Dankner's old buddy, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. If Arkadi buys Ma'ariv, it will have a new champion.
In an interview with Ynet on Wednesday, Gaydamak announced that contrary to what he's said in the past, he's not going to set up his own party. Instead he said Likud chairman Binyamin Netanyahu was the most suitable candidate for prime minister.
The Gaydamak-Netanyahu alliance is a revival of Netanyahu's old coalition of the disenfranchised. In 1996, he won the direct election for prime minister by appealing to those who felt rejected by Israel's mainstream.
Then, his partner was the prince of underdogs, Shas chairman Aryeh Deri, who helped him woo religious voters. Now Netanyahu is relying on Gaydamak to work his wonders and bring in both the Russian vote and the low-income voters who left the Likud in droves in the last election.
Ironically, Gaydamak was introduced to Betar Jerusalem by then-finance minister Olmert, who subsequently cut him off when the police began investigating his affairs. Now Gaydamak hopes to achieve both revenge and recognition by helping Olmert's biggest rival replace him. Ma'ariv will be just one of his tools to this end.