Arkadi Gaydamak 88 298.
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Russian billionaire Arkadi Gaydamak went on the attack Monday morning, calling Prime Minister Ehud Olmert "a joke," and his government "a disaster" in an interview with Army Radio.
The comments came a day after Olmert criticized Gaydamak for treating the residents of Kassam-battered Sderot to a weekend holiday in Eilat, prompting some to praise him as "the savior of the people." Olmert implied that it was Arkadi Gaydamak's apparent ambition for a future in politics and other "ulterior motives" that inspired the tycoon's recent good deeds.
PM opposes 'PR stunts of billionaires'
"It is a joke to speak of this man as prime minister, and as a man for me his is nothing," Gaydamak said in heavily accented English on a phone interview from Moscow.
"Olmert says the residents of Sderot don't need to get out of the range of the bombs - to who is he deflecting the responsibility for these children? And instead of thanking me for caring for the children of Israel, this man who doesn't have any respect from me criticizes me."
"I took into account the expected ramifications, but it was something that I felt was required to do - I am a normal person, and when you are talking about protecting children from danger, money in not an obstacle," Gaydamak said.
He said he would consider treating the residents of other impoverished towns to free vacations if he determined it was serious idea and not just an attempt to wring money out of him.
The Prime Minister's office refused to respond to Gaydamak's comments as of Monday morning.
Gaydamak, who made headlines for spending a share of his fortune to help people in the North during the war in Lebanon and now to help Sderot residents, said this weekend that if he tried, he could become prime minister of Israel.
"I have enough public support today to be elected prime minister with a large majority," Gaydamak told Yediot Aharonot . "If I decide to run, I will get 40 seats in the Knesset. Politicians know that and they are scared."
As well they might be. In a recent poll conducted by The Israel Center for Youth Leadership, youths aged 14-30 named Gaydamak the second most influential non-political figure in Israel today. When Gaydamak, who owns the Betar Jerusalem soccer team, arrives at his team's games, he is greeted by the popular chant: "Hey there, look who's here, the next prime minister of Israel!"
Despite his newfound popularity with the Israeli public, Gaydamak has become increasingly unpopular with officials from across the political spectrum. At Sunday morning's cabinet meeting, Olmert took aim at the man who would be prime minister.
"I am against causing southern residents to flee their homes, and against the PR moves of millionaires on the account of people for other considerations," he said. "Someone is abusing the public."
Olmert wondered why more doubts were not being raised about what he termed "the terrible tastelessness" of Gaydamak's Sderot campaign.
"True, it is not easy to approach the residents and talk to them about staying in Sderot, it is easier to take them [away] by buses," he said. "But this is not a serious move. We as a government have to be there, and we will present an overall solution."
Gaydamak, who is currently in Russia on a business trip, quickly responded to Olmert's attack.
"The prime minister is concerned that I will steal votes from him if an election will be held," he said. "For the politicians, the people of Sderot are just votes. The prime minister doesn't care about Sderot or the pressure the children there suffer from."
Last week, Gaydamak treated the children of Kassam-ridden Sderot to a holiday in Eilat, angering many who accused him of encouraging a policy of "fleeing."
"We are in the process of preparing an organized and coordinated plan to make life easier on the citizens so they won't have to knock on the doors of philanthropists," said Defense Minister Amir Peretz, who as a resident of Sderot has been slammed for not doing enough to protect his own community. "There must not be abandonment or running away. This plan must be conducted in an organized and coordinated manner," he added.
Kadima MK Shlomo Breznitz and National Union MK Nissan Slomiansky joined in Peretz's criticism of Gaydamak, saying he did not understand the Israeli way of standing one's ground in the face of a threat.
"Politicians are waking up to Gaydamak because he has very good advisers who are very politically astute. They have been able to address the failings of the current government," said Prof. Reuven Hazan of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem's political science department. "If the government did its job, Gaydamak would have a much harder time."
Hazan said that while the Israeli public was buying into Gaydamak's good deeds, only time would tell whether the public perceived him as a political leader.
Increasingly, politics appears to be drawing media-savvy billionaires. Earlier this year, American billionaire business mogul Donald Trump hinted that he might consider running for president in 2008.
"People who say that 'only in Israel' can a wealthy immigrant shake up the political system have no knowledge of that system," said Hazan. Candidates throughout the world are starting to be more of the focus than parties or ideologies, he said.
Hazan said the idea that someone could come from nowhere and take the political arena by storm was a new and growing phenomenon.
"This is not a healthy thing for Israel," he said. "This country has tremendous social problems alongside our security problems. We need politicians who can work with people, not people who think that they can give orders and everything will be run accordingly."
So far, Gaydamak has not shown himself to be inclined toward working with people already in the political establishment. In addition to his rift with Olmert, he has managed to clash with nearly every politician he has encountered in recent months, and has been known to accuse the entire Knesset of "criminal laziness."
The one politician Gaydamak reportedly has good relations with is Israel Beiteinu leader Avigdor Lieberman. Lieberman has repeatedly encouraged Gaydamak to enter politics, despite the threat he poses to Lieberman's own constituency.
"The real battle will be between Lieberman and Gaydamak," Hazan said. "They are both charismatic leaders who understand the core Russian constituency. We will see a real battle of money versus organization."
Although Gaydamak has met with leaders of the National Union-National Religious Party, Shas, the Likud and Israel Beiteinu, there has been no talk of him joining an already existing party. No one, including Gaydamak's own advisers, has announced what type of political platform he would present if he ran for the Knesset.
While Gaydamak may be busying himself to prepare a platform, there is one thing he might want to put higher on his checklist before seeking the premiership - learning Hebrew.