Analysis: The new liberator of Jerusalem

Gaydamak brought some rare joy by buying Betar a championship. Now he's planning to spend whatever it takes to liberate City Hall.

gaydamak 298.88 (photo credit: Allon Sinai)
gaydamak 298.88
(photo credit: Allon Sinai)
This week's festivities for the 40th anniversary of Jerusalem's liberation are but a pale backdrop to the real thing. On Sunday night, Arkadi Gaydamak, wearing a black leather jacket, stood on the stage in Sacher Park in front of 40.000 frenzied fans and held his fist in the air. The masses cheered. "I am the mayor" he proclaimed and, in broken Hebrew, "People of Betar, the empire is back." No one thought it strange that Gaydamak should be hearkening back to the last time Betar Jerusalem won the national soccer championship nine years ago, when he probably didn't even know the team existed. Less than two years after the oligarch bought the club and poured more than NIS 100 million into it, they can barely remember what life was like before Arkadi. "Looks whose coming, the next prime minister," they chanted. The Betar fans, so used for decades to being the underdogs of Israeli sport, have still to come to terms with their transformation into the richest club in the country. For one night, following the "championship game," Arkadi was king, but many of them admit it was a hollow victory. The overpaid players rarely seemed to be giving their all on the pitch, and none of them has been elevated to the status of beloved city hero like striker Eli Ohana or midfielder Uri Malmilian. And if the lackluster quality of the football wasn't enough, the riot last week at Teddy Stadium, which came so close to ending tragically, crystallized the bitter taste of the title. Still, Gaydamak wasn't going to allow anyone to rain his parade, not even the Israel Football Association's disciplinary court, meting out a punishment of four matches without spectators. The Sacher Park rally was less a celebration of the championship and a chance for the fans to thank the team, than another opportunity for the patron to bask in the crowd's adulation. On Sunday morning, the government had held a special meeting at the Menachem Begin Heritage Center, marking the 40th anniversary of Jerusalem's unification. At the center sat Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Mayor Uri Lupolianski. Two years ago, it was then-trade and industry minister and former Jerusalem mayor Olmert who convinced Gaydamak to save Betar from bankruptcy; last year Gaydamak was feted by Lupolianski when he rode with him in an open car in the Jerusalem Day parade. But for the past year and a half, Olmert has refused to meet with Gaydamak, ever since he became the subject of a money-laundering investigation. Lupolianski fell out with Gaydamak two weeks ago when he refused to hold an VE Day event for Red Army veterans in City Hall Square at the hour Gaydamak demanded. Gaydamak would have dearly loved to be invited to the cabinet meeting at the Begin Center; instead he organized his own party. Successive governments have been accused of failing to bolster Jerusalem's standing as Israel's capital, and City Hall has been assailed for decades for lacking even a semblance of efficiency. Until now, the people of Jerusalem have only been able to grumble (and leave in their tens of thousands). Now there is a man with the power to stand up for the city. Gaydamak's people are quite clear on the subject; he has decided to take the next municipal elections in August 2008. He will either run for mayor himself or he will bankroll a proxy. Huge sums will be spent on bringing out the normally apathetic voters and toppling Lupolianski. Forty years of empty promises and neglect have left impoverished Jerusalem with an unbalanced demography and bleak economic prospects. Gaydamak brought some rare joy by buying Betar a championship. Now he's planning to spend whatever it takes to liberate City Hall.