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Witnesses to the meeting between Likud Chairman Binyamin Netanyahu and billionaire Arkadi Gaydamak at the King David Hotel on Tuesday insist that it didn't seem more than "a quick chat over coffee."
Netanyahu's advisers said the tete-a-tete was initiated by the Russian and that, for the half an hour they were together, Netanyahu just went over his basic view of the situation, nothing different from he's been saying in his recent interviews.
A year and a half after erupting on the local scene, Gaydamak still remains a cipher. He spent untold millions on a soccer and a basketball team, donating as well to others, promising much more to hundreds of philanthropies, educational organizations and political parties, and buying up newspapers and radio stations. His next acquisition is a string of gas stations.
Eschewing the ancient philosophy of giving charity in secret, he has ensured that all his donations are widely publicized. It seems that, more than anything else, Gaydamak wants to be seen as the national sugar daddy, with a finger in every possible pie. The moment when he drove down Jaffa Road in an open car with Uri Lupolianski on last year's Jerusalem Day parade was priceless for him.
But lately his passion for ostentatiousness has been frustrated. All requests for meetings with Ehud Olmert, the man who originally brokered the deal between Gaydamak and Betar Jerusalem FC, have been refused.
The police investigation into suspicions of money-laundering has made him persona non grata in certain circles. On New Year's Eve, he splashed out on a million-dollar party at his mansion, inviting the entire Knesset. All Kadima's ministers and candidates were given strict orders not to be seen there on any terms.
At the Herzliya Conference in January, Gaydamak's organization of Russian Jewish communities sponsored a couple of sessions. All through the conference Gaydamak stalked the halls and corridors, but discreet minders shepherded ministers so as to avoid them meeting with him. A note was delivered to Police Insp.-Gen. Moshe Karadi during his address, instructing him to carry on speaking for five more minutes until the recess, because Gaydamak was planning to ask a question. For attention-starved Arkadi, sitting down for coffee with Netanyahu was another chance to bask in the limelight.
Netanyahu has lately turned the battle against corruption into one of his hobby horses, so why was he willing to be seen together with the (allegedly) tainted Gaydamak? He was obviously aware of the PR risk he was taking, and could have met him at a more discreet location.
Even if the meeting was as innocent as Netanyahu's people swear it was, Bibi is a very calculating politician. He knows that, to regain his electoral support, hinting at the coziness of Olmert and his big-business friends and trying to project himself as the clean alternative just won't be enough. He has to rebuild a political base and is not sure where his new troops are going to come from. He is constantly being shown opinion polls that show how deeply alienated most voters still are with him.
He has lost his core constituencies over the last three years, with his former fans seeing him as the cruel finance minister who slashed their benefits or the political opportunist who didn't leave the disengagement government until it was too late.
The only major group of voters that still don't have a clear opinion of him are the Russians, where he still believes he has a chance of marketing his image as a strong leader. Meeting Gaydamak out in the open, even if they didn't talk about anything of consequence, might help to send a message to the right places.
But Netanyahu has to reckon with his party colleagues, who have fallen in love with the Likud's new leaner and cleaner image, and are hoping for a notional return to the days of ideological and moral purity of Menachem Begin. They identify Gaydamak with just the kind of corruption they are spoiling to fight; if Netanyahu insists on meeting these types, popular MKs like Michael Eitan might just be persuaded to give their support to a leadership rival. One must never forget that President Moshe Katsav is a year away from the end of his term of office, and a return to the Likud fray is always on the cards.
Meanwhile, the real Russian party, Israel Beiteinu, was underwhelmed by Netanyahu's nod in its direction. After reports this week about a possible merger between the two parties - reports that were hastily denied - Israel Beiteinu was quick to comment that, from the point of view of Russian voters, Avigdor Lieberman is a much more popular figure than either Netanyahu or Gaydamak. A merger might be possible in the future, but this time Netanyahu may be the one begging for a meeting.