Sheldon Adelson in Two States

A few people believe that they are able, by force of personality or cultivated skill, to dominate culture and politics in both Israel and America. They are, almost all of them, wrong.

Benjamin Netanyahu thinks that his time in America, his fluent English, and his banging the drum for counter-terrorism decades ago afford him a special place in American politics. He delivers many speeches in English with the sole intention of influencing American opinion. Yet all of this, and his ten years in office, go only so far. He is a partisan figure, often invited to speak, but never influential among the public, being instead an honoured foreign voice among the Republican party congregation.

Donald Trump is another. He believes they love him in Israel because he has so nakedly favoured the cause of their country, and its long-serving prime minister. Trump is probably assured by Netanyahu that he is popular in Israel as he believes himself to be. That all the ‘great deals’ Arab and Muslim countries have recently signed with Israel do not represent a delayed reckoning with reality, but are instead understood to be the result of his munificence.

He thinks Israelis, and American Jews (who are not too different, to his mind) should be his greatest advocates and fiercest defenders. He believes they owe him.

But politics goes only so far in attaining influence in, and possibly over, a society or two. Sometimes money is a better emissary. One man who could claim great influence in both Israel and America died this week. His name was Sheldon Adelson, and his money permeated both countries and shaped each of their polities. Both Netanyahu and Trump owed him very much. It is possible that without him, neither of them would have risen to hold office at all.

Adelson’s rise to fabulous wealth need not detain us so much as what he did with his money, acquired at least initially through running casinos. Anyone truly interested ought to read the gushing tributes published in several of the newspapers he owned. They are all, believe me, more than sufficiently thorough.

Adelson was more than a casino magnate. Israel Hayom, which Adelson founded in 2007, is its country’s most widely read newspaper. It is daily and it is free. A better platform for the promotion of anything – an idea, a party, or a single man – could hardly be devised, even in an age where newsprint commands less automatic attention.

Adelson put Hayom largely at the disposal of Netanyahu and the promotion of his policies. So widely is this perceived that many call Hayom ’Bibiton‘: ‘the newspaper of Bibi’, Netanyahu’s nickname. Its editorials support the prime minister as determinedly as they supported him in opposition. The paper attacks Netanyahu’s opponents on the left as vigorously as those on the right.

The leaders of other parties on the Israeli right, who would, in a different world, be candidates for the paper’s endorsement, frequently gnash their teeth about its adherence to the battered standard of one man.

They noted that Adelson funded Hayom, which always ran at a loss, to the tune of $200 million. Its approach depressed the value of advertising nation-wide, knocking the profitability out of the market entirely. This largesse of Adelson’s proved quite a war chest in the battle for hearts and minds, and a powerful asset come election-time in a country where so many parties jostle for popular support.

In America, meanwhile, Adelson’s money went hither and yon, with the man himself ceasing to support some Jewish-American groups purportedly because of their stances on Palestine were too soft for his liking. In national rather than international politics, Adelson was a steadfast Republican, the largest individual donor to Donald Trump – a less successful operator of casinos than he – in 2016. Adelson, after initial reluctance, supported Trump over his more establishment Republican opponents.

Trump reciprocated this support by giving Adelson’s wife, Miriam, a large-scale political donor in her own right, the Presidential Medal of Freedom; and by moving America’s embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. The Adelson couple were guests of honour at its dedication. They purchased the policy, so it was only fair they could secure good seats for its unveiling.

In Adelson, a man born in Boston who lived much of the year in Nevada, Trump believed he had a true conduit to Israeli politics and Israeli public opinion. No doubt the money helped.

Much of the donor class rejected Trump wholesale. Adelson, by not doing so, was able to catch the ear and the imagination of this uniquely unfocused president, and to ensure his own pet issues were advanced.

In Israel meanwhile, it is difficult to imagine the present state of affairs existing at all without Adelson’s influence. Israel would likely not have begun its fourth election campaign in three years but for his commitment to the increasingly laboured survival of one man, whose indictment for corruption and increasingly comfortable perch in power may have tempted his party to ditch his for a fresher and less blemished face.

‘History will remember Sheldon Adelson as the man who did more than nearly anyone else to corrupt and debase two political systems, Israel’s and America’s’, tweeted Anshel Pfeffer, of the left-wing Haaretz newspaper.

Adelson channelled money made in gambling into politics. Many contend that he fixed politics in Israel to the extent that one party now plays with house odds. His money, and his politics, reside now with Miriam. She seems more than ready to continue the high-stakes political game they played together.

This essay was originally published in The Critic.

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