Gaydamak, the billionaire owner of Betar Jerusalem football club, who has joint Israeli and Russian citizenship, told the Haaretz newspaper that he would try to forge peace with the Palestinians and Israel's Arab neighbours by promoting free market policies.

 

"Israel-Arab relations have to be based on economic co-operation and development," Gaydamak said on Monday.

 

Gaydamak's reputation for controversy was further enhanced on Monday with the news that he was questioned by fraud squad detectives investigating a large money-laundering scandal.

 

Police said he was interviewed for about an hour at his home in the upmarket coastal resort of Caesaria as part of a long-running inquiry into accusations that hundreds of millions of dollars were laundered at a branch of Bank Hapaolim.

"Israel-Arab relations have to be based on economic co-operation and development"

Arcadi Gaydamak,
Russian tycoon

 

A number of prominent figures have been questioned as part of the investigation, including Zvi Hefetz, Israel's ambassador in London.

 

Gaydamak is also the subject of an international arrest warrant issued by judges in Paris in 2000 as part of an inquiry into weapons smuggling in Angola.

 

Important political force

 

Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet Union account for about 20% of Israel's near seven million population and have become an increasingly important political force since the Kremlin first authorised their departure in 1990.

  

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who last week announced the formation of a new centrist party, called Kadima, has already pitched for votes from the Russian-speaking community by persuading Michael Nudelman, an independent MP born in Kiev, to join his new venture.

 

Sharansky quit Sharon's cabinet in
protest over the Gaza withdrawal

One of the most prominent members of the Russian community is Nathan Sharansky, the former Soviet dissident who quit Sharon's cabinet earlier this year in protest at the prime minister's decision to pull out of the Gaza Strip.

 

Avigdor Lieberman, another former cabinet minister, is the leader of Israel Beiteinu, a right-wing nationalist party.

 

Party list

 

Gaydamak said he would begin drawing up a party list for elections to the Knesset, due to take place on 28 March, later this week.

 

He said he was considering calling the party Betar, the name of a Jewish fortress which was a bastion of resistance to the Romans, but wanted to be sure that it would be legal.

 

"I shall consult my lawyers on this matter, and of course, I shall respect any legal decision," he said.

 

Betar Jerusalem is notorious for its right-wing supporters who frequently chant anti-Arab slogans during matches, a reputation Gaydamak has vowed to overturn.