Behind the Lines: Business as usual?

Unlike all the other millionaires who worked behind the scenes, Gaydamak has placed himself as an alternative to the state.

Arkadi Gaydamak 88 (photo credit: )
Arkadi Gaydamak 88
(photo credit: )
In the early 1990s, a bumper sticker that was briefly popular in Tel Aviv read: "Maxwell, buy me." It referred to the Czech-born British media mogul who had recently purchased the country's second-largest daily newspaper, Ma'ariv, and large stakes in two major local firms, Teva and Scitex. Those were the days before the craze when foreign buyouts of local businesses became an almost weekly occurrence, and the media and business communities were overawed by the larger-than-life figure that had suddenly burst upon the hitherto mostly provincial scene. He was heralded as the man who would raise the Israeli economy into the international premier league and was regularly feted on his regal visits by the country's leaders. Captains of industry, too, flocked to his presidential suite with business propositions. He seemed destined to join the ranks of fabled Jewish philanthropists such as Moses Montefiore and Baron Edmond de Rothschild. A few months later, in November 1991, Maxwell's body was found floating in the Atlantic Ocean and was flown to Israel where he received what amounted to a state funeral on the Mount of Olives, complete with eulogies by president Chaim Herzog and prime minister Yitzhak Shamir. Speculations abounded as to the circumstances of his death; books and magazine articles claimed he had been a Mossad agent, worked for the KGB or both. What emerged as certain was the 400 million hole he had left in the pension funds of his employees, which he had plundered to finance his business empire and lavish lifestyle. The holdings here were quickly sold off and Maxwell conveniently forgotten as an embarrassing footnote in the country's financial history. Unlike other Jewish magnates who had contributed to the economic development of the Zionist endeavor, Maxwell had no streets, towns or neighborhoods named after him. His corpulent visage would never grace Israeli banknotes. IT'S PROBABLY too early to speculate into which category history will consign Arkadi Gaydamak, who this week again took on the establishment by building yet another "tent city" - this one for refugees from bombarded Sderot - despite the government and the town's mayor insisting there is no need for it. Will he be remembered as a great builder, a man who played a pivotal role in developing the local economy, or will he go down as another charlatan in the mold of Maxwell? It's interesting to note that while many Jewish businessmen have given fantastic sums to worthy causes and invested heavily in local companies, none has come even close to achieving the mythic proportions of Montefiore and Rothschild, celebrated to this day in every kind of physical and cultural monument, from museums to popular songs. One major reason for this is the fact that they supplied the first building blocks for financial independence: Montefiore by enabling the impoverished Jewish community of Jerusalem to relocate outside the Old City and setting the foundations for its self-sufficiency, and Rothschild by supporting the first agricultural settlements on the Coastal Plain and founding various business concerns, most notably the Carmel winery. No subsequent investments or donations would ever have similar significance, nor could they. The second reason is that by the late 1920s, the socialist workers' parties that had taken control of the Zionist movement in Palestine had transformed the ethos of the Yishuv. They redefined the image of the local Zionists, from employees in a business financed by philanthropists to the "new Jew" liberating the land by the sweat of his brow. Despite their Marxist ideals, the labor movement leaders were not above consorting with the Jewish millionaires and accepting their money, but the limelight from now on was reserved for the Jewish laborer, pictured in the period's iconography on posters eerily reminiscent of the Soviet worker in Stalinist propaganda. The new Zionist historiography demonized the "baron's clerks" as faceless accountants bossing the valiant workers around, trying to force upon them an alien French culture. To their credit, Baron Rothschild and his descendants resigned themselves to a behind-the-scenes role and continued supporting Zionism, funding ventures and institutions to this day. Most senior politicians over the decades have had close contacts with both Israeli and foreign millionaires, who lavishly entertained them, donated to their campaigns, lent them money and enjoyed regular access that was often beneficial to their business concerns, but remained almost always in the background. A few wealthy men, such as Amnon Rubinstein and Zalman Shoval, became major political players, but the public was rarely, if ever, aware of their financial situation. In the last elections, two nouveau riche millionaires tried to run in the Labor primaries, using their success in business as their campaign platform. Both failed to win realistic spots on the party's parliamentary list. Savvier tycoons could have told them that money is a private thing and that political influence should be bought on the quiet. All recent prime ministers had their silent groups of rich backers, but their names rarely came out, save for when the police began investigating illegal donations or on the relatively rare occasions on which an enterprising journalist uncovered yet another link between big money and power. One rare exception was in the 1996 elections, when Australian mining magnate Joseph Gutnik financed the "Netanyahu is good for the Jews" campaign that was credited with tilting the results in Bibi's favor. Gutnik emerged for a while as an influential figure in politics, fulfilling the late Lubavitcher Rebbe's apparent wishes by using his money to further various right-wing causes. But a downturn in his fortunes - and Netanyahu's electoral defeat in 1999 - led to Gutnik's disappearance from the scene. THE SURGING of the local economy over the last decade has naturally caught the imagination of the media. Not only has the business press expanded, but glowing profiles of new and old millionaires have become constant features in every magazine. Our transformation into a global hi-tech power, coupled with a belated deregulation of the financial laws, has attracted the world's business elite, from Warren Buffet down, all basking in the press's adulation. Jewish magnates, who once gave donations but shied away from doing business here, began searching for investments. But still the major players, even when they were in for hundreds of millions, preferred to keep quiet about their political and social influence. Even when it comes to pure philanthropy on their part, many prefer to keep under the radar. For example, the private foundation spending probably the largest sums today on social programs in Israel, the SACTA-Rashi Foundation, actively discourages reporters from writing about its president, French businessman Hubert Leven. IDB chairman Nochi Dankner, widely regarded as the most influential businessman in the country, who is currently spearheading an initiative to financially support businesses and communities in the war-battered North, refuses to give interviews and shuns the press in general. Others have learned the hard way to stay out of the spotlight. Shari Arison launched her "Meaning of Life" movement and tried to play a public role but was first ridiculed by the media and then attacked for firing hundreds of Bank Hapoalim employees. Sami Ofer hastily withdrew a $100 million pledge to the Tel Aviv Museum after the press criticized his demand that it be renamed for him and his wife. They discovered to their cost that while the media worships success and money, no amount of money buys blanket immunity. WHICH BRINGS us back to Gaydamak. The man has broken all the rules by inviting television cameras into his palatial homes in Caesarea and Moscow; he is constantly available to reporters, always prepared to go on record, without any compunction in monopolizing every interview ("This is not a conversation" he memorably informed an astonished Yair Lapid on Channel 2), free of any modesty when it comes to describing his own achievements. Unlike all the other millionaires who worked behind the scenes, backing the state and its leaders and whispering their criticism in the right ears, Gaydamak has placed himself as an alternative to the state. Despite casting himself in the mold of the great Jewish philanthropists, he has yet to embark on any meaningful social program. All his grand gestures have been aimed at instantaneous headline-grabbing rather than long-term nurturing. His aid to the people of Kiryat Shmona during the Second Lebanon War, and now to Sderot's Kassam-fatigued residents, is well timed to take advantage of the media attention, but it does nothing to improve their lives, other than giving them a couple of days respite. Even his purchase of Betar Jerusalem, into which he poured more than NIS100 million, was aimed at the short term, securing a championship this year at all costs, rather than providing the professional stability that the club needs, as his serial firings of managers proves. So far his money has bought him an incredible amount of publicity, one rather tarnished football trophy, the adoration of the masses, the opprobrium of the intelligentsia and the fear of the politicians, who still have no idea how to deal with this bewildering phenomenon. And the media are equally clueless. After failing dismally to discover exactly how Gaydamak made his billions, we have yet to come up with a credible policy on how to report his antics. Meanwhile, he is guaranteed coverage whatever he does or says, proving an uncanny knack of grabbing the headlines, whatever the day's story. Going back again to the 19th century, Montefiore and Rothschild were successful and respectable members of their own societies, and their charitable activities in the Promised Land were remarkable for their total lack of self-interest. We are no closer to realizing what Gaydamak wants from us. Is he trying to buy himself immunity from money-laundering or even worse charges down the road? Will he try to parlay his popularity into power and actually run for office? Or is he simply desperate for a place in history? You've got to hand it to Arkadi: No one has ever been so devastatingly successful in dictating the terms of engagement to the entire local media.