Exclusive: Keeping his eye on the ball

Though under investigation for money laundering, billionaire and Betar owner Gaydamak sees the Knesset as a viable goal.

Arkady Gaydamak serious 248.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
Arkady Gaydamak serious 248.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
Though under investigation for money laundering, billionaire and Betar owner Arkady Gaydamak nonetheless sees the Knesset as a viable goal Arkady Gaydamak is something of a renaissance man. He speaks a handful of languages, deals in art, sports and the stock exchange. He holds Russian and Israeli citizenship, and an Angolan diplomatic passport. The stories he tells makes him sound as though he were a character in a James Bond movie - such as when he recounts saving downed French airmen in Bosnia and receiving military medals in state ceremonies from French President Jacques Chirac. Yet until last month, Gaydamak, one of the wealthiest men in the country, was virtually unknown to the Israeli public. This is no longer the case. His purchase of the Betar Jerusalem soccer club, his announcement that he plans to run for the Knesset and his recent police interrogation have Keeping his eye on the ball made him practically a household name overnight. What changed? Not much, he claims, speaking softly and slowly in heavily accented, articulate English. "I've always been active in Jewish life in various countries," he says, attributing his shooting into the public eye mainly to his Betar purchase. In an exclusive interview with The Jerusalem Post, Gaydamak spells out his vision for Betar and reasons for wanting to enter the political arena. "I think I can provide society with the benefit of my experience as an economic manager and as a leader of different social and philanthropic activities," Gaydamak says, explaining why he plans to run for the Knesset. "People should vote for candidates who show concrete results. Look at me and what I have done." With a fortune estimated at several billion dollars, Gaydamak might be expected to be satisfied with his lot. But at the age of 53, he says, he is far from finished leaving his mark on the Jewish world. He is the newly-elected chairman of the World Betar Movement - illustrated by the oil painting of Ze'ev Jabotinsky hanging on the wall of his posh Ramat Gan office. He is also the president of the Congress of Jewish Communities of Russia (KEROOR). Gaydamak originally amassed his fortune from Angolan oil and diamonds. Today, he says, most of his money is made on the Russian stock exchange, as well as from the several agricultural companies he owns in the former Soviet Union. He is also involved in dozens of philanthropic ventures, including contributions to Ethiopians, east Jerusalem Arabs and the Russian-Jewish community. Community service and sports aside, Gaydamak's reputation leaves something to be desired. Surrounded by rumors of corruption and government scandals, he is considered somewhat of a shady character. Police are currently investigating the source of a $50 million transfer into bank accounts owned by Gaydamak at the Yarkon branch of Bank Hapoalim - which is under investigation for allegedly facilitating money-laundering services for foreign and Israeli businessmen. In addition, he is reportedly wanted in France for his alleged involvement in an international arms scandal involving the son of former French president Francois Mitterrand. Gaydamak claims he is wanted in France due to a power struggle between Chirac and former prime minister Lionel Jospin, Mitterrand's successor as leader of the Socialist party. MARRIED WITH three children, Gaydamak grew up in Soviet Moscow in a family, he says, which not only respected Jewish tradition, but was deeply involved in Jewish community affairs. Breaking out in a shy smile. the Russian billionaire recalls how his grandmother sent him to the local shohet - slaughterer - for kosher meat. LAtely associated with the religious Shas Party, Gaydamak says he has been laying tefillin for the past 15 years, since his son's bar mitzva. Gaydamak first moved to Israel in 1972. What brought him here? "After the Six Day War there was a kind of rebirth of Jewish sentiment [in the Soviet Union]," he recalls. "Many of us began looking into the possibility of making aliya." He began his Israel experience on a kibbutz. As a young man, he says, he wasn't the competitive type and thought kibbutz life was free of a certain kind of rivalry. "But then I discovered that kibbutz life was full of social competition," he says, "and I thought that if I was going to be obliged to compete socially and professionally in my life, I might as well do it on a large scale rather than a small one." It is thus that after a mere six months, Gaydamak left the kibbutz and headed for different shores. Literally. He joined a ship's crew at Haifa port to embark upon a stint as a sailor. This led him eventually to France, where he ended up establishing a successful translating company. But his real fortune was made during the 1980s perestroika era, when he allegedly facilitated arms deals - together with Mitterrand's son - between Russia, Czechoslovakia and Angola, a country which later granted him honorary citizenship. Now, as a successful international businessman, Gaydamak is interested in having an influence on the way things are run in Israel - socially and politi cally. On the one hand, he admits, he bought Betar to enhance his public image. On the other, he says, he did so to help troubled youth. "Sports, especially football, inspires many young people who may not have the possibility of being moved by something else," he says. Although Gaydamak has pleased many sportsing Jerusalemites with the millions of dollars he is pouring into the club, a recent announcement that he would consider hiring Israeli-Arab player Abbas Suan has caught many die-hard fans off guard - ticularly those who chant "Death to Arabs" during the games. Despite threats by fans that they will attack Suan he steps foot into Teddy Stadium, Gaydamak claims they are not racists, but rather "young people who were raised under very specific conditions in the Middle East, where for dozens of years there has been a very deep confrontation between Jews and Arabs, and their position is a consequence of these extreme conditions." He has even told the players that "with their feet" they have the ability to change the political situation in Israel. So, in the end, Betar fans will accept Suan? "I'm sure they will," he declares. "They are not like this because they don't like Arabs. Arabs are their brothers. They are expressing the situation of the conflict between Arabs and Jews subconsciously." WHILE GAYDAMAK seems to enjoy the media carnival that has been enveloping him of late, he the police investigation spoils all of the positive publicity. And aside from stating his complete rejection of the suspicions against him, Gaydamak refuses to talk about the content of the investigation. "Show me somebody who will tell you that the origins of the money are not clean," he challenges, referring to the $50 million deposited in the Bank Hapoalim branch under question. "Show me what I did wrong." Describing his interrogation experience, Gaydamak says he felt like he was being grilled by businessmen rather than police officers. "It is the police's job to investigate and it is normal to question and clarify," he says. "They asked questions about the internal workings of industry." Chit-chat notwithstanding, it is precisely this inves tigation that may thwart Gaydamak's political ambitions. If it picks up speed, he confesses, he may back down from his plans, since his public rating would naturally fall. How does he explain the wide interest in his investigation? Gaydamak laughs. Take a man, he says, who earns $2,000 a month. "When he is sitting in his kitchen eating pita and receiving all the complaints from his wife that he didn't bring enough money home and he is watching on TV that Gaydamak was interrogated by police, he can tell his wife, 'Maybe you're not happy with what I bring home, but look at him - he's in trouble with the police.'"