Analysis: The Sputnik Party

If Gaydamak does launch new political party it will mean a return to 'satellite system' of '50s and '60s.

Arkadi Gaydamak 88 298 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Arkadi Gaydamak 88 298
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
The big parties of the Fifties and Sixties, Mapai and Mapam, each fielded a separate "minorities list" in every election. Their purpose was to bring in votes of Arabs, Beduin and Druse who weren't comfortable voting for a Jewish party. These "satellite parties" were organized, financed and had their candidates selected by the parent parties, and after the elections, their MKs automatically added to their patrons' bargaining power within the ruling coalition. The cozy arrangement fell apart in Seventies, when radicalization and the loosening of patriarchal control on the younger generation of Israeli Arabs caused the votes to migrate to the left wing and to independent Arab nationalist parties that weren't going to be part of anyone's coalition. The ersatz parties were disbanded. If, as is now being reported, Arakadi Gaydamak is indeed about to announce the foundation of a new political party, aligned with Likud and its leader Binyamin Netanyahu, it will mean a return to the satellite system, only this time it will be a Russian satellite, the Sputnik Party. Gaydamak has said many times that he doesn't want to be an MK himself. But he would like to be a political kingmaker. He sees himself as a kind of spiritual mentor to the new party's MKs. He wants to be to them what Rabbi Ovadia Yosef is for Shas. But why is Netanyahu going along with this? He's leader of the Likud, surely he shouldn't be encouraging rival parties. Well, if he wants to get back into power some day, he might not have much choice. The surveys that show him to be the most popular candidate for prime minister right now don't seem to be translating into enough Likud mandates to ensure him a stable coalition. Despite his renewed popularity, there are clearly still large constituencies that are very angry with him, blaming fiscal policies in the years he was finance minister for their economic woes. One of the most important groups Netanyahu is failing to attract in sizable numbers is the immigrants from the former Soviet Union. They voted for him in 1996, but lost confidence in him and moved to Ehud Barak in 1999. Estranged again, they shifted their allegiance to Ariel Sharon, and in the last elections most of them split between Kadima and Avigdor Lieberman's Israel Beiteinu. Their votes are crucial for Netanyahu's return to power, but they still don't see him as a strong leader. A potential alliance with Gaydamak stems from the realization that if Netanyahu can't bring the Russian vote to the Likud like Sharon did, the next best thing would be to try to ensure in advance that as many of the immigrants as possible vote for a party that will automatically support his premiership after the next elections. And what is in it for Gaydamak? His many fans claim, of course, that the man is a genuine Zionist, concerned with the direction the country is going in and willing to spend his own money to set things right. His detractors, and there is no shortage of those, either, will see this as a cynical ploy to obtain political power. Critics taking a more psychological view might posit that the quintessential outsider - having bought the nation's most popular football team, Betar Jerusalem, paid for the temporary evacuation of tens of thousands of refugees from the bombarded North and Sderot, and held the most lavish parties the country has ever seen - is now trying to buy acceptance via the Knesset.