Big-tent politics

Observations on Israel

The scene was idyllic, like something out of a Center Parcs brochure. In the pine forest of Tel Aviv's huge Hayarkon Park, Stars of David fluttered around an enclosed tent complex. Inside, young children threw themselves around a bouncy castle, while older children played video games on big plasma screens. Adults picked at food prepared by a gourmet chef before retiring to their camp beds. Given that all 300 residents were Israeli refugees fleeing the Qassam rockets falling on their home town of Sderot, they probably slept sounder under canvas than in their own homes.

The camp is the brainchild of Arkadi Gaydamak, a controversial Russian-Israeli billionaire with a taste for philanthropy. After seeing the town's suffering he dug deep and within 20 hours opened his five-star camp - with showers, a synagogue and nightly concerts.

Not everyone is happy with Gaydamak's generosity, certainly not Israeli PM Ehud Olmert, who has been outflanked again by a man many tip as a potential successor.

Last summer, Gaydamak capitalised on the government's slow response to the suffering of Israelis in the north of the country during the Lebanese conflict and set up similar camps. Olmert was not happy at being upstaged, nor with being seen as doing nothing as Israelis suffered. "I am opposed to the PR stunts of millionaires," he told the cabinet then. "Do we want to be depicted as a nation that flees from their homes? It looks like a declaration of defeat."

Gaydamak responded in his usual flamboyant manner. "Only stupid Olmert could define the evacuation of children as a humiliation," he told the Israeli newspaper, Haaretz. Gaydamak was refused permission to erect a camp in Jerusalem's Sacher Park next to the Knesset, but Tel Aviv's municipality approved the 1,000-person temporary complex.

"Gaydamak is the one person who can do something for us," explained Lavavit, a 27-year-old law student who had arrived at the camp that afternoon. Her entire family fled Sderot after a rocket landed metres from their home. "Arkadi has the money but the government don't do a thing. The situation is terrible in Sderot."

Gaydamak's cache is huge in Israel, not just for such high-profile projects but also for his ownership of Beitar Jerusalem, the right-wing, nationalist football club, which he has just bankrolled to the title. It's said in Israel that if you keep Beitar's fans happy, you have a million voters in your pocket. He is rumoured to be considering running for Mayor of Jerusalem.

In contrast, Olmert's ratings are poor. After a damning report on the Lebanese war last month he polled a zero approval rating and members of his Kadima party called on him to resign. No one in Israel doubts Gaydamak's thirst for public office, even the top job.

"A lot of people in Sderot would vote for him [for PM] because of what he's done, definitely," agrees Lavavit. Almost every child in view is wearing a new, yellow Beitar scarf, as if to prove the point. It's a remarkable transformation. Gaydamak, after all, still has an international arrest warrant out on him for gun running in Angola and various investigations into his business dealings are pending.

As I left, a second coach brought more residents in from the Sderot front line. A man in his twenties knocked excitedly on the window at me and laughed manically - another happy camper in Arkadi's big tent.

This article first appeared in the 11 June 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Russia: The beggar becomes the belligerent