(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski )
Almost everyone in Israel knows his name.
Some call him melech (king). Some snipe that he is striving to buy himself a country. Some wonder if he is an agent for Moscow.
But who is Arkadi Gaydamak, really? How does he perceive his role? And how does the Russian community in Israel react to him and his activities?
"I am an Israeli. I feel and present myself as one everywhere," Gaydamak told The Jerusalem Post in an interview. "It doesn't matter that I am from the ex-USSR. I am working with everybody here; it makes no difference where they are from," the 55-year old billionaire said.
The Russian-speakers in Israel, Gaydamak said, are helping build the state, and he is following that tradition. "We have brought our Soviet mentality with us, and there are some good things in it that can be used for the benefit of the Jewish state," Gaydamak said.
He added that he estimated that there were far more than a million Russians here. "The reiterated 'one million' assertion is aimed at lowering the level of the self-determination of the community," he claimed, "so as not to let them figure out that they are really a majority."
He went on to claim that the "so-called 'Russians' are underrepresented in almost all spheres, starting from the military... The percentage of 'Russians' in combat units is very high, much higher than the percentage of high ranking officers," he elaborated.
Overall, Gaydamak asserted, the Russian community here was in a state of discord. "There are no real activities, no real leaders, no organizations, no movements," he said. "The 'Russians' are living by Soviet standards, waiting until somebody gives them what they deserve. This should change."
Which may be where he comes in.
On Thursday, the Russian billionaire, who has been questioned several times by the police over allegations of money laundering, financed another slew of newspaper ads in his campaign to clear his name. In these, he challenges Attorney-General Menahem Mazuz "to close the seemingly endless investigation against me or to present an indictment."
Some critics have charged that Gaydamak is seeking to gain enough political power to enter the Knesset and thus obtain parliamentary immunity from prosecution. Speaking to the Post, Gaydamak rejected this "parliamentary immunity" theory. "Everything I do, I do for the good of the people of Israel and not as political gimmicks," he said.
How do over a million Russian-speaking citizens feel about Gaydamak? Three experts on the community spoke with the Post.
"Gaydamak tries to fill the niche (some 50% of the Russian-speaking electorate, which normally votes for a community party) that remained empty after the disappearance of [Nathan Sharansky's] Yisrael B'aliya [party, which was incorporated into the Likud]," said Dr. Vladimir (Ze'ev) Khanin, academic coordinator of the IDC Herzliya's Institute for Eurasian Studies.
"Ideologically-oriented Russians will probably keep away from him," Khanin said. "Frankly speaking, among Russians, Gaydamak is more accepted as a public political figure than a party politician, and he realizes that."
"People are divided as to his motives, and there is no consensus on the Russian street about his activities," said Channel Nine analyst Roman Polonsky. "But for many Russians he is the only one in the country who is doing something, while all the others just gabble.
"Many of them don't care about his motives because he sets things in motion... Secondly, he bypasses the borders of political correctness: Gaydamak says what simple people say."
Paradoxically, Polonsky continued, Gaydamak unites two images, that of a rich successful man and that of a persecuted outsider - a dichotomy to which many Russians relate.
Eliezer Feldman, director of the Institute for Social and Political Research, connects Gaydamak's popularity to public opposition to Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's administration.
"Gaydamak is perceived as the only effective opposition to Olmert's government," Feldman said. His only rival in the Russian street is Avigdor Lieberman, and Lieberman is a minister (for strategic affairs) in Olmert's government.
"Gaydamak keeps his promises and he acts. This is the best way to capture hearts," Feldman said, noting, however, that there might be a dangerous side effect. If an individual can determine the community's agenda, he could twist it to his own advantage. "This privatization of... public attention might be problematic in the future," Feldman added.