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(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Russian-Israeli billionaire Arkadi Gaydamak is not the subject of any criminal investigation, an Israel Police official told The Jerusalem Post on Sunday.
The surprising revelation comes nearly eight months after police investigators recommended that Gaydamak be charged in connection with his alleged laundering of some $50 million through a Tel Aviv branch of Bank Hapoalim, where a wider money-laundering affair involving dozens of businessmen and bank employees has been investigated since February 2005.
An indictment was never filed in the case, and on Sunday, police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said police were "not pursuing any investigation against Mr. Gaydamak." Gaydamak's spokesperson could not be reached for comment at press time.
True to his media-savvy form, the provocative Gaydamak went on the offensive during the alleged money laundering investigation by publicly accusing Police Investigations and Intelligence chief Yohanan Danino of conducting a personal crusade against him, and even going so far as to initiate an extensive publicity campaign in which he called the investigation against him "baseless libel."
The revelation that Gaydamak is "clean" seems counter-intuitive to public perceptions of the widely popular, yet shady, businessman. In December 2000, Gaydamak fled France, where he was wanted for illegal gun running, tax evasion, money laundering and corruption allegations. And despite lavish public demonstrations of generosity during times of national crisis while in Israel, he has been unable to shake a shadowy past spent mostly outside the borders of his adopted homeland.
French authorities had alleged that Gaydamak - who holds Russian, Canadian, Angolan and Israeli passports - was hiding behind Israel's financial privileges for immigrants to protect his assets and avoid prosecution. Similar grievances against aspects of Israel's guaranteed immigration policy for Jews were cited as a basis for the Paris-based Financial Advisory Task Force, a group of 26 rich countries representing the world's main financial centers, to list Israel among 15 countries picked out as a money-laundering haven.
For his part, Gaydamak - a father of three who has never been convicted of a crime - has maintained that he amassed his fortune on the Russian stock market. He currently owns the Betar Jerusalem soccer and Hapoel Jerusalem basketball clubs, is close to signing a deal for radio frequency 99 FM, and in a maneuver indicative of a man with political aspirations, he teamed up with former Mossad officials Danny Yatom and Avi Dagan to form a private military company called the Strategic Consulting Group.
Despite having little grasp of Hebrew, Gaydamak has succeeded in grabbing headlines, garnering both public praise and the disdain of government officials after two highly publicized and politicized displays of his massive wealth: first building a beach camp for thousands of refugees from the north during the summer's fighting with Hizbullah, and more recently when he footed the bill to evacuate 3,000 residents of the Kassam rocket afflicted town of Sderot for a weekend getaway in Eilat.
"I am against causing southern residents to flee their homes, and against millionaires' PR maneuvers on behalf of people for other considerations," Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said at the time.
Gaydamak, emboldened by his soaring reputation on the Israeli street, countered by saying that Olmert was "an irresponsible leader" who was ungrateful for his sincere gesture of charity, and he said the prime minister feared that Gaydamak would take up to 40 Knesset seats from him if he were to run for public office.
Referring to Defense Minister Amir Peretz, Gaydamak told Ynet soon after: "What does he know, to be a taxi driver?" In that interview with Ynet in November, Gaydamak said that he had not ruled out the possibility that Olmert was behind the police investigation against him, and he alleged Olmert, Danino, and Attorney-General Menahem Mazuz were working together to tarnish his public image.