Politics: $ocial Justice's route to $uccess

Why the real winner of the Knesset's non-dispersal might end up being Gaydamak and not Olmert or Barak.

gaydamak aj 224.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
gaydamak aj 224.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Politicians, pundits and pollsters spent last weekend arguing over whether Prime Minister Ehud Olmert or Labor chairman Ehud Barak got the better deal when their parties signed an agreement that prevented the dispersal of the Knesset. Some said Olmert won, because he received at least another three months in power and perhaps nearly a year. Others said Barak emerged victorious, because he forced Kadima to hold a leadership race to replace Olmert. But apart from Olmert and Barak, there were other winners and losers. Kadima backbenchers were obvious winners, because they will keep their jobs longer than they expected. The Likud was an obvious loser, because it failed to bring down the government and force an election. Shas won, because it now holds the key to whether the victor in Kadima's expected September primary will be able to form a new government or face an immediate election campaign. But it also lost, because Shas officials had wanted a November general election that would have forced the postponement of the November 11 municipal races. The reason why Shas and other parties that focus on socioeconomic issues were so keen on delaying the municipal elections can be summed up in one 14-letter word: Gaydamakphobia. Gaydamakphobia can be defined as the fear that Russian-Israeli billionaire Arkadi Gaydamak's new Social Justice Party will swoop in and build a base of mayors and city council members in local authorities across the country. This would not only steal council seats away from other parties on the local level, it would also give Social Justice momentum to become a force to be reckoned with in the Knesset race. Had the Knesset race been its first test, Gaydamak's party might have suffered an irrevocable blow that would have made it hard to compete on the local level. But Social Justice is built to succeed on a local level. According to Social Justice's deputy director-general Gadi Medina, the party that was only legally registered last November already has 25 mayoral candidates and council candidates running on its behalf in more than 100 local authorities. In 70 of them, the party will be fielding incumbent councilmen, who not only stand a good chance of success, they also receive government funding. Many serious candidates turned to Social Justice because they did not want to run on their previous lists, and because of Gaydamak's reputation. Money is key to success in any election. And even though Gaydamak, like any other Israeli, can contribute only NIS 1,900 to a party during an election year (and even less during a regular year), there was a perception among prospective candidates that Gaydamak could work around the law to use his wealth to allow them to succeed. Some 600 Social Justice candidates crowded a hall at Ramat Gan's Kfar Hamaccabiah Hotel on Sunday for a rally and a briefing with Gaydamak and other top party officials about how to handle the various laws regarding how to raise and spend money during an election campaign. The goal of the rally aspect of the event was to show the candidates that they were part of a formidable force and to show the public that the party was for real. The purpose of the briefing was to avoid the criminal investigations, comptroller reports and bad press that have become inevitable whenever politics and money come together. The political news of this week focused on the resurrection of the police probe into whether Barak illegally raised huge sums of money during his 1999 campaign for the premiership using non-governmental organizations. Police launched a probe in 2000, but closed it four years later after Barak's top campaigner Shmuel Levy refused to turn state's witness. Levy called a meeting with National Fraud Unit detectives on Monday, during which he reportedly disclosed how "cartons" of cash illegally raised for the campaign had passed through his hands while he was head of an NGO that police suspected was involved in the illicit fundraising. The story raised the issue of whether the fact that three recent prime ministers had been investigated for raising funds illegally revealed problems with the fundraising laws and not only with Olmert, Barak and former prime minister Ariel Sharon. Social Justice legal adviser David Norodetzky said he believed the laws were antiquated and needed to be changed in an era when American presidential candidates are raising previously unfathomable sums of money. "I think the limits in the law cause every party to go into debts that require funding to get out of or to find what I would call creative ways that are not necessarily illegal in order to compete," Norodetzky said. Meretz MK Ran Cohen tried unsuccessfully to convince the Knesset Law Committee on Tuesday to prevent philanthropists like Gaydamak from using their donations to help them politically. Cohen proposed the bill after Gaydamak funded the Eilat vacations of busloads of Sderot families in Eilat and constructed a tent village for thousands of families who left the North during the Second Lebanon War. According to Cohen's bill, if a candidate for the Knesset has donated at least NIS 1 million during each of the four years before an election, the money would be regarded as a contribution to the candidate's party and therefore an illegal campaign contribution because it exceeds the limit set by the Election Funding Law. Gaydamak's people said that even though the bill was intended to stop him, it would actually hurt many other politicians, because they would have to reveal to the public every contribution they made. Gaydamak left the Knesset victorious after MKs from the three largest parties forced Cohen to revise the bill to prevent it from turning philanthropists into criminals. Whether Gaydamak will also be victorious in November and in the Knesset elections that will eventually take place will be determined in part by the candidates recruited by the Social Justice Party's staff. But ultimately, success is determined by a leader and whether the decisions he makes pan out. For Gaydamak to succeed, the ultimate non-politician will have to beat the politicians at their own game.