Arkady Gaydamak: the Russian billionaire who fled arms deal scandal and became a hero in Israel

Colourful Russian billionaire Arkady Gaydamak may have a few skeletons in his closet, but he could be the most important player in Israeli politics.

"Imagine Rupert Murdoch with a dash of George Soros and your favourite James Bond villain thrown in," says David Green in The Boston Globe of colourful Russian billionaire Arkady Gaydamak. The latter may have a few skeletons in his closet, but he could be the most important player in Israeli politics. With prime minister Ehud Olmert receiving the worst approval ratings in the nation's history, the influence of Gaydamak and his newly founded Social Justice Party is growing by the day.

A born populist, the 54-year-old self-made billionaire worked his way up from bricklayer to international businessman, amassing an estimated £4bn. Earlier this year he launched the Social Justice movement to give a voice to the non-privileged minorities who are the majority', turning it into a political party on 10 July after privately funded polls convinced him the party could win a strategic 20 seats in the 120-seat Knesset (parliament). Gaydamak has said he will serve as party leader but will not stand for the Knesset himself. He is involved in dozens of philanthropic ventures, seeing himself as a nagid or givir a traditional Jewish philanthropist-leader using his wealth for the public good says Phil Zabriskie in Time.

Despite his good works, his CV is "hardly that of a saint", says Zabriskie. How Gaydamak came by his billions isn't known for sure. Born in Moscow in 1952, he became one of the first Jews to emigrate from the Soviet Union to Israel at the age of 20, where, attracted by the non-competitive philosophy, he joined a kibbutz. To his surprise, he discovered kibbutz life was in fact fraught with competition. Deciding that if he had to compete he would rather do it on a bigger stage, he set sail for France. His lack of qualifications saw him work as a bricklayer and gardener, but in 1976, capitalising on his language ability, he opened a translation bureau near Paris, servicing Russian businessmen visiting France. As the business grew, Gaydamak pursued a more lucrative trade in import and export. Gaydamak claims most of his fortune was made on the Russian stockmarket, but his business interests have ranged from Angolan diamonds and oil to arms deals, says the Jewish Russian Telegraph.

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His life in France came to an abrupt end in 2000 when the French authorities issued a warrant for his arrest in connection with the sale of Russian arms to Angola in the 1990s, a scandal known as Angolagate, which involved the son of former president Franois Mitterand. Gaydamak fled to Israel and has not returned to France since, although last week French police said that he could be extradited to stand trial for a number of offences, including arms-dealing, fraud and tax evasion. In Israel, Gaydamak was questioned but never charged by Israeli police during a major money-laundering investigation. He denies all charges of wrongdoing, even taking out an advertisement in an Israeli paper to refute the allegations. Earlier this year he told Newsweek, "I was never involved in any arms deals nothing". Even so, he now travels on a diplomatic passport, courtesy of the Angolan government, to evade arrest. Unfazed by his legal problems, Gaydamak is now running for the key political post of mayor of Jerusalem. An informal poll conducted by a local paper found 60% of respondents would back his bid. Gaydamak won't have been surprised. He recently told an interviewer, "I am the most popular man in Israel".

Arkady Gaydamak: opportunist, or man of the people?

There is much scepticism about Gaydamak's motives. Some believe he is trying to buy popularity, not just to further his political ambitions but to "buy his way into the hearts of Israelis in order to fend off police investigations", says Associated Press writer Matti Friedman. Gaydamak says he is acting "as a Jew, and as a human being... Not even Moses managed to escape this kind of criticism". He has certainly become a hero in Israel for "putting his money where his mouth is", says The Boston Globe; distributing largesse to communities ignored by the authorities, getting into "messy spitting matches" with Prime Minister Olmert and "throwing mammoth parties for the public". During the Lebanon War in 2006, when the government was slow to shelter hundreds of thousands of Israelis fleeing fire in the north, Gaydamak erected a tent city to house thousands of families. Similarly, when Sderot was under daily rocket fire from Gaza last year, Gaydamak paid for 3,000 residents to stay in hotels at the beach resort of Eilat. He gained further kudos in 2005 when he purchased Israel's leading football team, Beitar Jerusalem, and the Hapoel Jerusalem basketball team.

It is no wonder he's popular, says Newsweek. At a time of weak leadership he has positioned himself as an "eccentric electoral outsider with the bank account and business acumen to fill the gap". A quarter of the Israeli population lives below the poverty line and there are one million resident Russian Jews: Gaydamak has an intuitive grasp of what the Israelis want to hear at this crucial juncture in their country's history.