All bets are on

With Gaydamak, will next year's mayoral elections be all about money?

Arkady Gaydamak serious 248.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
Arkady Gaydamak serious 248.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
The next municipal elections are in exactly 18 months. The next tenant of City Hall will be chosen - as it now seems - from among seven candidates, and one thing is already clear to the local leadership: The supremacy of the traditional political parties is over, at least as far as Jerusalem is concerned. The political scene is already composed of apolitical and ad-hoc coalitions, which will completely change the norms. For the first time at least some of the lists that will compete for the public's support will be formed by people from very different backgrounds, including unusual alliances among the secular, religious and haredi sectors, as well as activists from the Right and Left. Another change is that while new and different options for lists for the city council are already beginning to be organized, until recently "big" name candidates for mayor were lacking. "We don't have charismatic figures, people who might rally the masses behind them. All the candidates - official and non-official - are minor leaders. For better or worse, Ehud Olmert was the last big-scale candidate we had here in Jerusalem," explains a veteran local journalist. Until Monday, the only name in the arena was Nir Barkat, who kept his promise and stayed on the city council although he didn't succeed in his previous attempt to reach the mayor's office. He has not only continually announced in the past four years that he is already a candidate for the 2008 elections, he is already working very hard to prepare himself for them, with a first-class professional staff (including Israel Beiteinu adviser Arthur Finkelstein, Kadima adviser Eyal Arad and others), organized campaign headquarters and a special team in place to get out the vote among the immigrant population. Since Mayor Uri Lupolianski has not announced publicly that he is considering running for another term, Barkat was, until recently, the only candidate whose hat was in the ring. But no more. In an interview published in Yediot Aharonot on Monday, one of the most enigmatic figures in the country, Arkadi Gaydamak, announced his decision to run. According to this interview, it was an impulsive decision - Gaydamak was furious that Lupolianski didn't give his support to the Russian olim veterans' march scheduled for May 8, and decided that rather than having to keep asking for favors, he'd rather be in charge himself. Now that he has joined the race, the seven candidates are Gaydamak, Barkat, Lupolianski, Yehoshua Pollack, Meir Porush, Yigal Amedi and Mickey Levy. Until this week, Gaydamak's possible candidacy was mere speculation. Many of those closest to the Russian billionaire thought that perhaps he would prefer to stay behind the scenes, financing a new list that would swamp the whole system in an attempt to completely change the face of local politics. No one - supporter or opponent - had predicted that Gaydamak would involve himself personally to such an extent that he would stand at the helm of an as-yet unformed party. "It's not clear if he is going to involve himself that far," someone close to Gaydamak said on Sunday evening. "One of the reasons the whole issue is still on the level of talks and no more is that we don't know what Gaydamak's real intentions are. To tell the truth, I am not sure that even he knows by now, it's too early, but the chances that something will come out of it are real, so we all talk, learn and wait to see," adds Yehuda Meshi-Zahav, a candidate for the future list and the founder of ZAKA, the rescue organization that has been one of the many beneficiaries of Gaydamak's generosity. "There is something in the air. There are talks, meetings, thoughts, but so far - nothing is settled. In order to go with him, we have to be sure to what extent he is going to be involved. It is not simply a question of money, we're talking commitment," Meshi-Zahav continues. Regarding the names that would be included on that list, he says that "the idea would be to gather people who have done things for the city, who have proven their commitment to this city, to its people. We are tired of the idea of a mayor who is only concerned about gimmicks and PR. That's not enough to run a city, especially a city such as Jerusalem. The most interesting part in this project is that we will have haredim and secular, left- and right-wing activists working together for the benefit of this city. We need someone to really take care of this city and put all his efforts into serving the citizens. For the moment, we have a mayor who prefers to hide himself inside his office," he adds. "I was one of the most dedicated to helping him win the previous election. I wanted to also help him because it was obvious that a large part of the opposition to him was because he is haredi. I wanted to help him to show the public that it's not the kippa, it's the person under it that makes the difference. Today I say it takes more to do the job. I am disappointed and I am not the only one. "Being the mayor of Jerusalem is not just a gimmick, a photo-op driving a tractor. Today I am convinced he is not fit for the job." Meshi-Zahav concludes by insisting that compared to other cities, Jerusalem's leadership has failed. "It has nothing to do with the fact that he is haredi, on the contrary. But compare Jerusalem to Ma'aleh Adumim - there it's like a candy store - clean, organized, with nice public gardens, kindergartens, everything we do not have here." MESHI-ZAHAV IS not Lupolianski's only haredi critic. His deputy mayor, Yehoshua Pollack, is just as candid as the former ZAKA chief. "The question of who is going to be the next mayor is not in Lupolianski's hands at all. There is an agreement between Agudat Yisrael and Degel Hatorah - Lupolianski himself confirmed it in an interview not so long ago. According to the agreement, Lupolianski was the first candidate for the mayor's office from Degel Hatorah, and the next one has to come from Agudat Yisrael since he, Lupolianski, represents Degel Hatorah. There is no room to argue about it. "The only question that will affect the decision is: Who is running against us in the next elections? If the rabbis come to the conclusion that we are facing some kind of a 'star,' they will have to decide who among the haredi candidates has the best chance to beat him, myself, [MK] Meir Porush or Lupolianski. In that case, of course the fact that he is mayor has its weight. Also the public is not afraid of him and has become accustomed to him. "For example for the secular public, the fact that Lupolianski hasn't shut down any cinemas or non-kosher restaurants makes him 'friendly,' not to mention his recent decisions regarding the Safdie Plan and the like. But I have also taken important decisions that will have a great influence on both the secular and religious public, in my area, the Housing and Planning Committee. I have also done things for the benefit of the citizens, whether they are religious or not. These are the kind of considerations the rabbis will have to deal with. For the moment, I don't see any such star facing us, so in my opinion, in the next elections it will be either Porush or me." Pollack adds immediately that in any case, he is not very enthusiastic about becoming the mayor. "If the rabbis decide I'll do it, but I'm not looking for it. I'm happy with what I'm doing now, dealing with construction, development and the like," he stresses. Off the record, some people in Pollack's inner circle are willing to say that "in fact, Pollack is very eager to have the job. He is convinced he is much more suitable for it, especially now that Lupolianski has made the first step for him or any other haredi." In any case, although the Porush family is the real boss of Agudat Yisrael, Pollack and his supporters, and there are more than a few, feel that Porush won't leave the Knesset for Kikar Safra. "The choice of Lupolianski was brilliant," adds a member of Degel Hatorah. "Lupolianski had the best chance to be accepted. He served in the army, he is not considered a fanatic, he has nice and gentle manners and the aura of Yad Sarah and the Israel Prize did the rest. And in fact, he obtained support from quite a few secular voters. But for us, he paved the way to the job. I believe it will take at least 20 years before we see a non-haredi mayor in the Jerusalem City Hall." Dudi Zilbershlag, chairman of the Meir Panim chain of soup kitchens and publisher of the haredi weekly Bakehilla, sees things very differently. "I have never been a close supporter of Mayor Lupolianski, although I appreciate his deeds and manners," says Zilbershlag, whose name, according to some sources, is on Gaydamak's list. "But he didn't succeed to do the things we, as a haredi society in Jerusalem, need. Even Olmert gave us more. Not that Lupolianski didn't want to improve things for us - they wouldn't let him. He was always suspect in their eyes, always tracked by his opponents and public opinion. And his battles with his legal adviser [Yossi Havilio] didn't help either. But personally, I respect his efforts to have a statesman's attitude - like what he had to endure at the last Israel Prize ceremony, in front of that outrageous ballet performance. He stood there, lowered his eyes and acted with real dignity, but is that what we really want?" Zilbershlag added that he is not a candidate on any list, especially not the Gaydamak list. "I know him and appreciate him. He is a philanthropist and I have admiration for what he is doing for Meir Panim, but as I do not see myself in a mixed [haredi and secular] political list, this is out of the question." Haim Miller, a Gerrer Hassid who was a former deputy mayor on Olmert's council, agrees that a haredi mayor, "no matter who he is, is not good for haredi society, because it doesn't help us. For example this project of a Jewish-Arab [bilingual] school. We are against it, but because the mayor is one of us we cannot even fight it." Miller says that due to the results he achieved in the last elections, as the head of an independent list which got more than 3,000 votes, he is being approached by some candidates to join their lists, but he hasn't yet decided. "One of the paradoxical results of having the first haredi mayor is that for the first time, we see lists that include haredim and the secular together, and we might see a split among the haredim, and maybe we will have more than one haredi candidate. In any case, it's very bad for the city and for haredim. I call on the citizens of the city, including the secular, to gather behind one good candidate instead of all these candidates who will not bring good to the city." FOR DEPUTY Mayor Yigal Amedi, that dream is closer than ever to coming true. Amedi, the closest person to Gaydamak in Jerusalem, believes the best solution is a mixed list, including all the people who "did something for this city, no matter if they are secular, religious or otherwise," and he is working hard to bring this into reality. Meshi-Zahav is one of the prominent names on this list, but he is not alone. Amedi is very cautious and refrains from giving away more names, saying that he has been approaching many "of the finest people in this city, who share our dream to turn it into the best place to live." Regarding his own role, Amedi admits with a smile that as long as he can continue to work for the development of culture, entertainment, sports and youth, he is satisfied. Regarding the fact that Gaydamak didn't announce his intentions to his closest allies, Amedi says that he had no doubt that Gaydamak had his sights on City Hall. Another name mentioned recently is Aryeh Deri, but Deri has always denied anything of the sort, and still does. A person close to him said that "Deri can only dream of being mayor of Jerusalem. For the secular in the city he is persona non grata, and for the haredim he is Sephardi. Ashkenazi haredim will never vote for him to represent the whole haredi society." Mickey Levy, the former Jerusalem chief of police who some wish to see in Kikar Safra, seems unable to run for mayor. "He doesn't have the money for it, and Kadima and Olmert are not in a situation to help him and support him," observes Amedi. Money is indeed a big issue in these elections: The last time around, Barkat had to invest almost NIS 8 million - one for each candidate on his list and two more for his own candidacy for mayor. These sums can be obtained only if you have a strong party behind you, or if you are independently wealthy. "Barkat and Gaydamak can afford it and even more, [but] Levy cannot even dream about it," remarks the local journalist. "I have no objection to seeing Micky Levy on my list," says Barkat. "I am the candidate for mayor, Mickey Levy and any other good person dedicated to Jerusalem and its people are welcome on my list, but not the other way around." Deputy Mayor Pollack seems to be the only one who admits publicly that Levy is not the best candidate Jerusalem might lose because of lack of money or support. "I'm asking you - a chief of police who comes to disperse the people after a terrorist bombing and ends up with a heart attack - how does that make him the best candidate?" "The rabbis will never break an agreement. The agreement is that after the first term with Lupolianski, it's the Aguda candidate's turn, whether it is Porush, Pollack or someone else," concludes Miller, who admits he is interested in hearing good proposals. "If it is someone who has no chance of winning, perhaps there will be, for the first time, a second haredi list and candidate. It has never happened before, but I have the feeling that the time is ripe for it. A haredi mayor is not, after all, the best solution for us, but a list with haredim and secular who are dedicated to Jerusalem can do more, both for the haredi society and for all the people of Jerusalem." Anat Hoffman, city council member for almost 14 years, summarizes the new situation in one sentence. "It's not surprising. After all, the main local dish is called me'urav yerushalmi [Jerusalem mixed grill]. You have to get a mix of everything to reach something." The results will be in by November 2008.