Adelson’s Legacy: Israeli Democracy Can Easily Be Bought

U.S. megadonor Sheldon Adelson wasn’t the first foreign businessman to corrupt Israeli politics, but he set a whole new standard

American businessman Sheldon Adelson applauds during a roundtable discussion on Capitol Hill with his wife Miriam, March 2, 2015.

Anshel Pfeffer writes in Haaretz| 13.01.2021

Casino owner Sheldon Adelson, who died on Monday in Las Vegas at 87, once said publicly in an event chaired by sex-manual writer Shmuel Boteach that “I don’t think the Bible says anything about democracy.” And that God “didn’t talk about Israel remaining as a democratic state. Israel isn’t going to be a democratic state – so what?”

wasn’t just talk. He put his money where his mouth was and invested countless millions undermining Israeli democracy. He wasn’t the first foreign businessperson to corrupt Israeli politics with his money, but he plumbed hitherto unknown depths.

The unwritten charter between Israel and the Jewish Diaspora – we rebuild the ancient homeland and you help us out with money and lobbying, was always open to abuse. And the sleaze certainly didn’t begin with Netanyahu and other Likud leaders. It goes back as far as David Ben-Gurion and the anonymous benefactors who would settle his hefty bills with bookshops in New York and London.

When Yitzhak Rabin was forced in 1977 to resign over his wife’s illegal foreign bank account, what went unsaid was that the money there had been paid by wealthy American Jews in return for speaking at their events and bar mitzvas while he was Israel’s ambassador to the United States. Ezer Weizman was forced to resign, Ehud Olmert went to prison and Ariel Sharon narrowly avoided a conviction, all because of friendly backhanders from Diaspora Jews. Whatever benefit Jewish philanthropy has brought Israel, it has also sowed the seeds of its political corruption.

What puts the relationship between the Adelsons and Benjamin Netanyahu in another league was not just the sheer scale of the bankrolling, but the brazenness and lack of any sense of proportion.

Sheldon and Miriam Adelson didn’t just want to help Netanyahu out with some creature comforts, like Cuban cigars, crates of champagne, Ermenegildo Zegna suits and the occasional pieces of jewelry for Sara, as others did. It wasn’t even no-strings attached loans or “investments” in real estate deals, such as those which allowed Ariel Sharon to own the largest private farm in Israel or Netanyahu to hold onto his parents’ old house in Jerusalem. The scope of the Adelsons’ ambitions was much greater. It was symbolized by their choice of wedding venue in 1991.

It was the event that initially brought Netanyahu and the couple together. Before meeting Miriam Ochshorn, a divorcee 13 years his junior, Adelson had little interest in politics, except in local Nevada issues, which impacted his gambling business, or in Jewish affairs or Israel, which he had visited only once before. It’s interesting to speculate how Israeli political history would have turned out had Adelson’s second wife been an Israeli with left-wing views, rather than those of the hard right.

When they decided to tie the knot, Miriam wanted the wedding to take place in Jerusalem. Israel’s capital has a number of exclusive places for a chuppah for those prepared to pay. But they wanted no less a place than the Chagall State Hall in the Knesset, a space with Gobelin tapestries and floor mosaics designed by the acclaimed artist, and meant for state receptions. Holding a wedding there was unheard of. But deputy minister Benjamin Netanyahu, then Likud’s dashing rising star, sorted it out for them. From that moment, he was their man.

Over the years, Netanyahu has provided his aides with a handwritten list of foreign millionaires from whom to ask for various favors. The list was split into three categories, ranking his closeness to them and their level of usefulness. New York real estate salesman Donald Trump, for example, was on one of those lists, but in the lowest category. Adelson was in the top tier.

Following his defeat at the hands of Ehud Barak in the 1999 election, which ended his first disastrous term as prime minister, Netanyahu emerged with one lesson that he repeated to every friendly tycoon. “I need my own media.” Netanyahu was determined to create a counterweight to the Israeli news organizations that had mercilessly reported on him throughout his first term. And since, unlike his role model, Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi, he didn’t have enough money of his own to buy, or set up his own media, others would have to do it for him.

Chairman and CEO of the Las Vegas Sands Corporation Sheldon Adelson speaks at the National Israeli-American Conference in Washington, October 19, 2015.
Chairman and CEO of the Las Vegas Sands Corporation Sheldon Adelson speaks at the National Israeli-American Conference in Washington, October 19, 2015.Credit: Gary Cameron/Reuters

His first candidate for the job was American cosmetics heir Ron Lauder, one of his earliest benefactors. Lauder agreed to acquire a controlling stake in what was then Channel 10 (since merged into today’s Channel 13). But Lauder was loathe to impose his, or more specifically Netanyahu’s will, on the channel’s journalists, who continued to produce hard-hitting reports on him. Lauder’s reluctance caused a falling out between the two, and a vacancy at the top of his billionaires’ list. Enter the Adelsons.

Instead of investing in acquiring an existing news organization, Adelson would go two giant steps forward. He would found an entirely new newspaper, one that would be distributed for free in hundreds of thousands of copies across Israel. This would achieve two objectives. Journalists hired by Israel Hayom would be left with no doubts as to their mission – bring down then-prime minister Ehud Olmert and ensure that Netanyahu be elected in his place. And by flooding the market with free newspapers, they hoped to eliminate some of the existing ones, which had tormented Netanyahu.

Over the years, Adelson has been accused of using Israel Hayom as a channel for funneling political funding to Netanyahu, bypassing Israel’s relatively stringent campaign finance law. Israel Hayom’s editors have responded, on behalf of their boss, that there’s nothing unorthodox about publishing a free newspaper and many such freesheets exist around the world. That’s a lie on three counts.

There is no freesheet like Israel Hayom. All other freesheets are basically platforms for mass advertising, with at most a tiny handful of “journalists” who mainly summarize or copy-paste reports from real news organizations, to fill in the limited “editorial” space on their pages. That’s the business model that makes these “newspapers” profitable.

Israel Hayom, however, has a full team of journalists, reporters on every beat and section from business to sports, dozens of editors, photographers, designers and of course a stable of columnists, some quite well-paid by Israeli standards. And its pages are almost empty of any advertising for which to pay them. In addition, while other freesheets are distributed cheaply in one urban area, often on public transport, Israel Hayom has its own nationwide distribution network, ensuring it reaches every corner of the country.

A $300m freebie

Industry experts assess that Adelson has spent around 25 million dollars a year on Israel Hayom, over the past 13 years since it was launched in 2007, or over $300 million in total. The state comptroller, the attorney general and the High Court, however, have been reluctant to rule this investment an illegal campaign donation, accepting that it is a bona fide newspaper and business venture.

In effect, Adelson has single-handedly created his own version of the U.S. Supreme Court Citizens United ruling, which allowed billions to be funneled to political campaigns through Super PAC (political action committee) loopholes. The Adelsons, who are among the most mega of megadonors to the Republican Party in the United States, are well acquainted with Super PACs and in Israel Hayom, have set up their own Israeli SuperPAC. In many ways, Israel Hayom is a more useful tool, as the power of the mainly Republican Super PACs has been partly blunted by more successful online fundraising operations by the Democrats.

It’s hard to gauge just how powerful Israel Hayom is. Netanyahu himself has in the past privately admitted that it has failed to gain the kind of influence he envisaged. Its coverage isn’t trusted, it never succeeds in dictating the news agenda like other daily newspapers and nearly all the small number of serious journalists initially attracted by its high salaries have since left acrimoniously. But its existence is certainly of paramount importance to Netanyahu.

In late 2014, the Knesset passed the first reading of a bill that would have required all nationwide daily papers to charge a minimal sum of money, thus depriving Israel Hayom of its advantage over its competitors and rendering it useless. To prevent it passing in to law, Netanyahu disbanded his government, three years early, and plunged Israel into an unnecessary election, all to keep Israel Hayom free.

A woman reads Israel Hayom in Ramat Gan, October 14, 2020.
A woman reads Israel Hayom in Ramat Gan, October 14, 2020.Credit: Moti Milrod

Israel Hayom is not and will never be an influential, much trusted newspaper in its own right. But it has served other purposes. It has drastically weakened and politicized large parts of Israel’s media industry. Adelson now has imitators, among them the shady owners of slavishly pro-Bibi Channel 20.

Other media owners have put their properties in Netanyahu’s service, or at the very least, tamped down criticism, most notably former owner of the popular Walla! website Shaul Elovitch, who is now standing trial together with Netanyahu for bribery in Case 4000. Another co-defendant of Netanyahu’s is the main shareholder of tabloid Yedioth Ahronot, Arnon Moses, who is on trial together with him for fraud in Case 2000. The two allegedly tried to reach a deal whereby Netanyahu would get Adelson to close down Israel Hayom, or at the very least not publish it on the advertising-heavy weekend, and in return Moses would reverse Yedioth’s critical coverage of Netanyahu.

Adelson may not have succeeded in wiping out the anti-Netanyahu press. It is still alive and reporting, but he has dramatically weakened it and corrupted large parts of the Israeli media which are now unquestionably pro-Bibi. His investment in Israel Hayom has had another, deeper impact. It has normalized the role of foreign money in Israeli politics and brought out into the open what was once hidden away. It was not only Netanyahu who was in on this. Even politicians who once shied away from Adelson and his far-right beliefs did not prove immune to his favors.

President Shimon Peres for example, a man whose politics were far from Adelson’s, and who tried to keep his distance, was lured in. Peres had a dream to hold a prestigious “President’s Conference” in Jerusalem but didn’t have the funds to foot the bill. Adelson was both willing to pay and to bring along for the event in 2008, the then-president of the United States, George W. Bush, another beneficiary of his largesse. As long as he and Miriam would be standing between the two presidents on stage.

What did Adelson get out of it all? His motives aren’t entirely clear. He wanted Netanyahu to become prime minister – that happened in 2009 and Netanyahu has remained in office ever since. But it’s hard to point to any major policy Adelson has influenced, with the exceptions of his lobbying against online gambling in Israel, something which as a casino owner he naturally abhors, and Miriam’s lobbying against the legalization of marijuana, which as a doctor specializing in addiction treatment, she views as a gateway drug.

Adelson, whose wealth at his death was estimated to be around $34 billion, could of course easily afford to spend the hundreds of millions he did on Netanyahu, Trump and other Republican politicians. Just as he donated similarly massive sums to organizations like Yad Vashem, Birthright, Ariel University and many others. But other than satisfying his own desire for proximity to power and supporting Miriam’s ideological causes, which became his own, he didn’t change policy or build anything new of value, besides his casinos and resorts. He usually latched on to the existing ventures of others.

He even continued bankrolling Israel Hayom and keeping it at Netanyahu’s disposal in recent years, despite personally falling out with him and his wife. Sheldon and Miriam were both questioned by the Israel Police in Case 2000 and spoke of how Sara Netanyahu’s demands that she receive even more fawning coverage in Israel Hayom and her bizarre accusation that Miriam was having an affair with its then-editor Amos Regev, had basically ended their friendship.

Yet they remained politically loyal to Netanyahu. In the same way they stuck behind Trump, despite neither of them thinking during the Republican primaries that he was the best candidate for the nomination (Sheldon favored Marco Rubio, Miriam preferred Ted Cruz). Because for the Adelsons, supporting the right candidate was never enough – it was about owning the entire process and if Netanyahu and Trump are the winners, they need to own them too. Putting themselves above democracy.

Over the last couple of years, as Netanyahu has failed to win three elections, while holding onto power by his fingernails, Miriam has continued to visit Israel, less frequently accompanied by the increasingly frail Sheldon — and has taken to hosting prominent Israeli politicians in the couple’s Tel Aviv apartment. Some of them include challengers to Netanyahu, such as right-wingers Gideon Sa’ar and Naftali Bennett and even centrist Yair Lapid.

It’s a local form of the “Adelson auditions,” the procession of Republican hopefuls who have gone through their suite in The Las Vegas Sands, in an effort to win their endorsement and millions. Miriam isn’t ready to abandon Netanyahu quite yet, at least not as long as he’s still got a good chance of winning, but she’s preparing for the day after Netanyahu. When that happens, Israel Hayom will swing behind a new favorite.

Miriam Adelson, at a sprightly 75, isn’t going to retire from the scene just because her husband passed away. She still has his billions and his legacy – to prove that Israeli democracy, such as it is, isn’t that important. Sheldon proved it can be easily bought and she will do the same.

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