Behind the lines: A model of media hypocrisy

Besides Pnina Rosenblum, there's a new - dubious - media star in Israel: Arkady Gaydamak.

gaydamak 88 (photo credit: )
gaydamak 88
(photo credit: )
There was an uncomfortable smugness to all the press coverage of the swearing in of new Knesset member Pnina Rosenblum. Veterans said that even during Anwar Sadat's historic visit to the Israeli parliament there had been fewer TV cameras on hand. Everyone seemed to be of the opinion that the beleaguered institute had reached an all-time low. Interviewers and broadcasters made fun of Rosenblum, mocking her ignorance of politics and lack of ideological platform. Television screens and Web sites played up photos of her modeling days. Army Radio reached new degrees of cynicism and acidity, polishing off coverage with "Always a Woman," Rosenblum's 1983 Eurovision song entry. It's arguable whether Rosenblum's elevation is a signpost of our democracy's decline, but if there's one factor that most contributed to her transformation from glamor-queen to parliamentarian, it's the same media who so indulged in taking a swipe at her. Rosenblum isn't the first MK with a colorful past. Naomi Blumenthal had a short movie career - even a nude scene - and another MK made a living as an artists' nude model (though in Yuli Edelstein's defense, as a refusenik in the USSR, he had no other job options). The difference between the latter two and Rosenblum is that they both built themselves up as professional politicians with clear agendas, while Pnina used her celebrity as a fashion icon and cosmetics mogul to propel her into the Knesset, with full cooperation from the press along the way. The main obstacle to a novice politician is usually a lack of public recognition. This is why ex-generals have an advantage when running in their first primaries. Businesspeople, lawyers, accountants and engineers might have the potential to be effective law-makers, but only a candidate with a high profile - like journalist Shelly Yehimovich - is ever guaranteed a realistic slot on a large party's list for Knesset. In 1999, Rosenblum failed to cross the electoral threshold with her own independent party, but did garner tens of thousands of votes. In 2002, she reached a low spot on the Likud list - only good enough to get her into the Knesset in the last week of its final session. But all of this would have been unthinkable if the Israeli media hadn't been covering every facet of her life for the last three decades. Rosenblum is a trash-celebrity, a second-rate model with no special talent for acting or singing - like Paris Hilton in the US or Jordan in Britain - famous for no apparent reason other than the fact that, at early stages of their careers, editors thought their faces helped sell papers. As a consequence, Rosenblum's boyfriends, marriages, divorces, adoption of two children, cosmetics business, buying and selling of villas - and even the theft of her Jaguar this year - have all been front-page news in Yediot Aharonot, Ma'ariv and on prime-time commercial television. Caligula is remembered in history for appointing his horse to the Roman Senate. The Israeli press should be remembered for putting Pnina Rosenblum on the Knesset backbenches. BESIDES ROSENBLUM, there is a new media star in Israel: Arkady Gaydamak. For the past three months, scarcely a day has gone by without his name in the headlines of not just one, but all, of the sections of all the papers: news, sports and business. One day he's buying a football team, the next he's launching a new political party and on another he's being questioned by police as a suspect in a money-laundering scheme. Every week he's the main star of a different press conference. Last week he met with reporters from the religious press. This week he's been reported to be negotiating the purchase of Radio Kol Hai, a religious station broadcasting in Gush Dan. He already owns the international weekly, Moscow News. There are at least a dozen billionaire "Russian Oligarchs" operating right now in Israel, all of them keeping a very low profile, and the press as a whole does little to disturb their privacy. Gaydamak is the first one to actively court the media - and it seems to be working. There have been a few attempts to delve into his murky origins and the questionable sources of his fortune, but no one has really tried to ask what it is he really wants. Is he after money? Does he want to become a political leader? Or is he a born-again Jew reconnecting with his roots? His latest investments would appear to dispel the financial-interest notion. In the space of a mere few weeks, he has spent millions of dollars on the Betar Jerusalem and Bnei Sakhnin football clubs, and on the basketball team, Hapoel Jerusalem. Israeli sports has always been a bottomless pit, so Gaydamak has no hope of seeing returns on his investments. On the contrary, if he wants to save face, he will have to pour more untold millions into them. Media is usually more profitable than football, but it's still a risky business, with much smaller returns than other investments. So why does Gaydamak - and why do other millionaires - waste good money on football teams and newspapers, instead of buying real estate or hi-tech shares? The first reason is the feel-good factor. Giving money to sports is always popular; the philanthropist is seen as benefiting the community, and he gains the gratitude of many thousands of fans. Of course, he could give money to hospitals, schools and universities, but sports has much higher ratings. Owning a newspaper, too, brings with it a special brand of prestige, a feeling of involvement in matters of state and a sort of commitment to lofty ideals like freedom of speech. But there is another, more sinister reason. Sports in Israel has a distinct political undertone. Many teams have affiliations, especially Betar, which has always been identified with the Likud. Party leaders regularly visit important matches in order to seem connected to the people, and issues such as funds for new facilities and preventing football matches from taking place on Shabbat have political implications. A millionaire buying a team enjoys instant public support and a high degree of access to senior politicians. On Succot, Gaydamak paraded with Jerusalem Mayor Uri Lupolianski in an open car. Owning media outlets also affords a high degree of political influence, which can be used in various overt and covert ways. Up till now, most of the media attention has been focused on Gaydamak's hiring and firing of Betar coaches. It's high time that his deeper motives were questioned by our journalists - before he buys them up, that is.