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Could there possibly be any worse Israeli hypocrisy than the current popular demand for an end to corruption? For the answer, think of the reptilian smile on the face of Arkadi Gaydamak.
After he gave the Jewish Agency $50 million last week, the oligarch-under-investigation told waiting reporters - who had been barred from the ceremony, obviously because the agency wanted to avoid a public disgrace - that he was in a different league now. He had been taken in as a major partner by Israel's historic national institution, he said. In short, the State of Israel had declared him kosher.
"[H]ere comes a person who has a smeared business reputation and who through this gift will receive nearly unlimited influence over the Jewish Agency," an unnamed Jewish Agency official told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency news wire recently.
After Ze'ev Bielski became Jewish Agency chairman some months ago, I wrote that he would be "good for the Jews." But by effectively selling a part-interest in the Jewish Agency to a major criminal suspect like Gaydamak, Bielski shows that I had judged him prematurely. Look what the Jewish Agency has done. It's pinned a medal on a man whom the Israel Police have arrested in the middle of the night, confiscating his passport and letting him go on NIS 1 million bail. They've questioned Gaydamak four times already as a suspect in the laundering of hundreds of millions of dollars in criminal Russian money through Bank Hapoalim's Hayarkon Branch.
France has an international arrest warrant out on him over an alleged illegal arms deal to the Angolan government during that country's civil war - a deal that was likewise reportedly worth hundreds of millions of dollars, and that resulted in the violent death, maiming or homelessness of countless Angolans.
Because of that arrest warrant, Gaydamak divides his time between a few countries that have a financial interest in protecting him, including Angola, Russia and the State of Israel.
As corruption goes, we're in fine company.
But it's unfair to single out Bielski for collaborating with Gaydamak - the agency chairman was preceded by several other, more senior Israeli leaders. One was - surprise, surprise - Acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.
"Olmert understood that I'm a person of great influence," Gaydamak told Yediot Aharonot's Seven Days magazine last September, noting how he impressed the then-industry and trade minister with his connections in Russian business and politics. It was Olmert, said Gaydamak, who led him to buy the Betar Jerusalem soccer team and Hapoel Jerusalem basketball team. "He asked and I immediately said yes," Gaydamak recalled.
The sportsman now rides in an open car through the streets of the capital with Mayor Uri Lupolianski. Betar Jerusalem fans go insane over him, chanting for him to become prime minister. Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz lauds him after he gives a bundle of money to social programs for IDF soldiers. With former Mossad chief and current Labor Party MK Danny Yatom, Gaydamak was partners in a military consultant firm to African nations, and not necessarily democracies.
So Gaydamak's political friends, with the brief exception of Yatom, stayed away from his New Year's Eve party - all it meant was that they're not stupid. They didn't want to be seen on TV sopping up the expensive champagne and hors d'oeuvres, just like Bielski didn't want to be seen accepting the money. But it's no secret that behind closed doors, Israeli politicians are lining up to kiss the wanted man's ring.
So he throws around tens of millions of dollars to Israeli charities - why not? He's got a billion or so more; giving to charity is by far the shrewdest investment he could make. Between his charities and his politicians, Gaydamak is weaving a protective web around himself. He does the same thing in mafia capitalist Russia, and more of it in Angola. In that destitute African kleptocracy, he's made a fortune in diamonds and arms sales while maintaining his philanthropies as well as his special relationship with the country's strongman.
The strategy works in Russia, it works in Angola, and it's working in Israel. On the one hand, the Israel Police are leaning on Gaydamak with their interrogations. But on the other hand, as Yediot's Mordechai Gilat, dean of Israeli investigative reporters, points out, "Why hasn't this gentle billionaire, with his money-laundering machine on Rehov Hayarkon, been handed over to the French police? When is that miracle going to occur? Where are the state attorney and attorney general? Somebody has to put him on an airplane with a one-way ticket..."
Maybe the police interrogations are just a show, after all, like the politicians' absence from the New Year's party. When Gaydamak read in Ma'ariv that the police had urged the Jewish Agency not to accept his $50 million, he threatened to pull all his money out of the country. But then, he says, the police told him they'd done no such thing, so he forgave everyone and handed the Jewish Agency the check.
By now, he's got everybody from Betar Jerusalem soccer hooligans to the prime minister on his side. He's found asylum here. Israel is his new home.
People in this country, I think, used to be relieved that Mafia leader Meyer Lansky wasn't allowed to immigrate under the Law of Return. It would have been a national disgrace.
But that was in 1970. I don't think Israel 2006 would keep Lansky out, not if he were spreading the kind of money around that Gaydamak is, and not if he were "building relationships" with the Israeli establishment like Gaydamak has.
I don't know how corrupt Israel is in comparison to other countries. What I do know is that there's no comparison whatsoever between the approved Israeli attitude toward corruption and the real Israeli attitude toward it.
The truth is that Arkadi Gaydamak, that chilling mercenary, is one of us, only more successful. Remember that during the campaign for a "war on corruption."