The Bizarre Race to Be Jerusalem's Mayor

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Gali Tibbon / AFP / Getty

Israeli-Russian billionaire Arkady Gaydamak walks past an Israeli flag in Jerusalem

Arkady Gaydamak, the enigmatic Israeli-Russian billionaire, thought he had his campaign for mayor of Jerusalem all gamed out. He was hoping that a win by his Beitar football team last week would boost his chances in the Nov. 11 vote. Indeed, Beitar started strong against rivals Ha'poel from Tel Aviv. Twice, his players sprinted up field, shaking off defenders to take cannonball shots at the goal, but twice the ball struck the crossbar. Beitar was scoreless. Then, in the last six minutes of the game, Ha'poel drilled in two goals. The Jerusalem fans left in a foul mood, disgusted with the team and its owner. Around town, posters of Gaydamak, whose thin face has a Transylvanian pallor, sprouted Dracula fangs. (See pictures of a divided Jerusalem.)

In the run-up to Tuesday's mayoral race, Gaydamak — once the prohibitive favorite because of his lead in campaign financing — has had a streak of bad luck. Like many Russian oligarchs, he was hit hard by the global economic crisis. His fortune shrank, forcing him to sell off a major Israeli company at a $100 million loss and to fire nearly all of his radio-station staff. Worse still, Gaydamak, supposedly the model for the title role in the movie The Lord of War (starring Nicolas Cage as an arms dealer in Africa), is one of 42 high-profile defendants on trial in France for illegally shipping weapons to Angola in the 1990s. Gaydamak chose not to attend those proceedings. (See pictures of Israel at 60.)

These setbacks have not helped Gaydamak's chances of being elected mayor of the Holy City. He is an outsider, joining an election fray that has polarized the city's black-hatted community of ultra-Orthodox haredim from the rest of its secular inhabitants. The outcome of this race will have repercussions for the Obama Administration's Israel-Palestinian peace plans, since the dilemma of Jerusalem — whether it will be shared with the Palestinians or remain the undivided Jewish capital — lies at the heart of any future accord. Gaydamak's rivals for the mayoralty are an ultra-Orthodox Jew and a right-wing software mogul. His only hope may be to win the large Arab vote in this diverse and divided city, an odd position for the owner of a team whose fans are among the most racist in all of Israel.

One-third of Jerusalem's 750,000 population are ultra-Orthodox Jews, another third are a mix of secular and less Orthodox Jews, while the remaining third are East Jerusalem's Arabs. Gaydamak, 56, can forget about winning the ultra-Orthodox vote. It will be delivered in a bloc to Meir Porush, 54, a former Knesset member who has the backing of the city's key rabbis. Says Anat Hoffmann, a former city council member: "When Porush says 'our children,' he doesn't mean Jerusalem's children. He means those of his community. And when he says 'our Jerusalem,' he means only particular neighborhoods where the haredim live."

Porush has a gaunt face wreathed in a wispy, white beard, a visage that photographers have trouble making look cuddly and friendly. And so, instead of a photo, Porush is represented on posters by a cartoon figure of a smiling rabbi. It does little to warm the hearts of non-haredim, however. Porush recently told his followers, "In another 10 years, there won't be a single secular mayor anywhere except in some rundown village." That is a day that many ordinary Israelis in Tel Aviv and elsewhere would dread. Already, droves of secular Jerusalemites are leaving the city, stifled by its increasing religiosity, and a Porush victory would increase the exodus, his critics say.

Gaydamak is setting his sights on Jerusalem's secular and less Orthodox Jews. But the Russian faces competition from Nir Barkat, 49, a software multimillionaire and city councilman. They will end up splitting the secular votes, with Barkat scooping up the larger share. Barkat has swung to the right, promising to build more Jewish settlements in East Jerusalem. Gaydamak thinks his only chance is to make inroads among the city's Arab community.

The idea of Gaydamak emerging as a champion of the city's Arabs baffles his Beitar football fans. The team's supporters are known for shouting "Death to Arabs" during matches. His fans say that while the Russian might know his football, he is clueless about Jerusalem's complexities (nor does he speak much Hebrew). Plus, they say, his advisers are selling him all sorts of crazy schemes so they can grab his shekels. Gaydamak, they say, may be a billionaire in Russia, but in Israel he is a freier, or sucker. (See pictures of Euro 2008 soccer games.)

Gaydamak's craziest scheme may be relying on the Arab vote. Not only does he risk losing his Beitar supporters, but traditionally, Jerusalem's Arabs seldom vote. Over the decades, the Palestinian leadership has urged Arabs to boycott municipal elections, claiming that it would validate Israel's "illegal" claim to the city. But the city's Arabs lose everything by refusing to vote. Without anyone lobbying for them on the city council, Arabs receive just one-tenth of municipal services — they have fewer schools, clinics, playgrounds and road repair — despite paying taxes.

On busy Salah Eddin Street, Arab opinion is sharply divided. Says Ahmed Ali, a teacher: "Of course I'll boycott, because Israelis annexed the city by force." But as Ahmed Fawzi, a grocer beside Damascus Gate, says, "The only way to get something from Israel is to fight them from within, joining them. We should go to the municipality and scream and spit in their faces, if that's what it takes."

Gaydamak's advisers recently met with Walid Dajani, a hotel manager from a prominent Old City family. Dajani told TIME, "I said I would give Gaydamak the balcony of my hotel to speak to us Arabs, but only if he came out against Israel's annexation of East Jerusalem. His advisers never came back." Dajani adds, "They know that any Jewish candidate who said those things would have no chance of winning on the Jewish side." Two days before the election, Gaydamak offered to halt the demolition of Arab houses in East Jerusalem.

On the Arab side of town, election day usually starts with a sickening ritual: the few brave voters who appear are beaten up by Palestinian militants. Word of the attacks then spreads swiftly around East Jerusalem, and other Arabs stay away. Beitar's fans may be right: the millions of shekels lavished on the Arab vote may be wasted, as they could be spent on new star players for Gaydamak's luckless team. Meanwhile, Jerusalem, the capital of three monotheistic faiths, could drift toward religious intolerance. As columnist Tom Segev writes glumly in the newspaper Haaretz, "All that is left is to envy those Jerusalemites who have already left the city."

— With reporting by Jamil Hamad and Aaron J. Klein / Jerusalem

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