Arkadi Gaydamak, a Russian-born billionaire businessman and sports entrepreneur, has decided to enter Israeli politics as a rightwing kingmaker at a time when voters’ respect for their present leaders has plumbed record lows.
The controversial 54-year-old last night set out his platform for a new political movement whose main beneficiary might turn out to be Benjamin Netanyahu, the Likud opposition leader and a close ally.
Emigrating to Israel from Russia in 1972, he spent much of his life after army service in France. He said last night he did not intend to run for the Knesset and preferred to guide the new party from above.
Mr Gaydamak, who founded a fortune estimated at up to $4bn (£2bn) on real estate and other businesses, was one of the rare public figures to emerge from Israel’s war in Lebanon last year with his reputation enhanced.
During the conflict he set up tent encampments on the coast for 1,000 people fleeing Hizbollah rockets in the north of the country at a time when the government faced fierce criticism for abandoning civilians to their fate.
He said at the time he was popular enough to be elected as prime minister with a large majority. However, he was expected to throw the backing of his new party behind Mr Netanyahu, who has been moving up the opinion polls as the ratings of some government ministers have plummeted to single figures.
Mr Netanyahu claims credit for turning round the Israeli economy during his term as finance minister that ended in 2005. Israeli commentators suggested Mr Gaydamak could secure the support of less affluent communities that felt they had lost out from Mr Netanyahu’s market-oriented policies – Russian immigrants, Arabs and ultra-Orthodox Jews.
The government of Ehud Olmert generated public discontent with its handling of the Lebanon war, and corruption and other scandals have further dented its popularity. Mr Gaydamak is no stranger to controversy. He has not returned to France since 2000 after the authorities there issued an international warrant to question him in an investigation into illegal arms sales to Angola.