Blow to Democracy

An interview in Issue 21, February 4, 2008 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here. Arye Carmon, president of the Israel Democracy Institute, sees the Gaydamak phenomenon as a manifestation of a troubling erosion of the public's faith in politics To the consternation of political parties on the right and the left, Moscow-born tycoon Arkady Gaydamak has announced that his Social Justice party will be running in 77 local council elections in November. Groups working to enhance Israeli democracy are also deeply concerned. For years the controversial Gaydamak, whose personal fortune is estimated at between $700 million and $4 billion, has been building a political support base through huge donations and high-profile acquisitions. He has bought two sports teams in Jerusalem, donated close to a million dollars to a third team in the Arab sector and established his own radio station. He has bused people under rocket attack in Sderot in the south and in towns in the north to tent towns out of the line of fire, winning considerable acclaim in working class areas. Gaydamak has also made huge donations to Druse, Arab and ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities, which now say they will support his bid for municipal power. Jerusalem's large ultra-Orthodox population will likely back his own personal campaign for mayor of the capital. Gaydamak, who speaks little Hebrew, is reportedly wanted in France on charges of illegal arms trafficking and tax evasion. He has also been investigated for suspected money-laundering in Israel. Carmon says he believes what he calls "Gaydamakism" - using huge sums of money to usurp government functions - constitutes a major threat to Israeli democracy. In a hard-hitting interview with The Jerusalem Report, Carmon explains what he sees as the deeper reasons for Gaydamak's popularity. The Jerusalem Report: What does it say about the state of Israeli democracy that so many people seem ready to support Gaydamak and his Social Justice party? Arye Carmon: Over the past few years, we have seen a troubling erosion of the Israeli public's faith in politics. It is reflected in the falling public turnout in elections and in a growing reluctance to serve in the public sector. The Gaydamak phenomenon is a kind of protest vote, a trap for people who want to protest against the normal democratic processes. To what extent does it endanger those democratic processes? A great deal. Even if all the criminal allegations against him are unjustified, he is still someone who buys his way with money. He does not participate in the public discourse or bear responsibility for his actions. Take the buses he sent to Sderot: He was ostensibly replacing the government, which was not doing its job. But what is the long-term effect of taking people out of Sderot and sending them back a week later? What kind of trauma does that cause? What impact does it have on the families? A responsible government takes all these factors into account. Gaydamak does not. He just steps into the shoes of the state, without authority and without responsibility. Why is he doing it? Maybe he is trying to launder himself. But the party he established seems to resemble one in the ultra-Orthodox sector, where there are no democratic procedures. He is clearly a man who uses manipulation and even what looks like bribery to promote his own interests. And this entraps people who are sick of politics. Those people would say here is a very wealthy man using his money to help the weak and downtrodden. Why is this bad? It's bad because when you deal with social issues, people who hold public office see the whole picture. In the allocation of funds, they create priorities and proceed according to rules. He does superficial, ostentatious things. He puts up tents but he doesn't provide genuine solutions. It's all populist pyrotechnics with nothing substantive behind it. And it's very dangerous. What do you see happening if the Gaydamak party wins many councils in November? It will be a major blow to the democratic process in this country - a rich man using his money to create political and social agendas. And I am not sure we won't see anarchy in his party. To what extent does the Gaydamak phenomenon reflect government failure to build a more caring, egalitarian society? It's not just this specific government and it's not only social policy. People have been turning their backs on politics for some time. One of the reasons for this is the implosion of the large parties in the wake of the now defunct direct election law. I also think the media with its superficiality and kowtowing to economic interests has a lot to answer for. In addition, the exaggerated legal scrutiny of decision-making in Israel, the way everything has to go through the prism of the attorney general, is suffocating the system, and turning people off. They set up commissions of inquiry on everything. There is nothing like it anywhere in the world. In the democratic system, governments are supposed to go on trial in elections, not commissions of inquiry. Here there is an abdication of responsibility and everything is dumped on inquiry commissions. So what can be done? One of the ways to deal with all of this is what our institute has been working on for years - a constitution. It won't change things dramatically overnight, but we believe it will start an upward curve in our democracy. It will define the rules of the game, the normative base, formulate the rights of minorities and start a recuperative process that could change things over time. An interview in Issue 21, February 4, 2008 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here.