Sheldon Adelson: The American behind Israel’s right wing

JERUSALEM — As more and more people wonder how long Newt Gingrich will persevere against the growing inevitability of a Mitt Romney victory, one man appears to be holding firm: Sheldon Adelson, the Las Vegas casino mogul who just poured another $5 million into Gingrich’s coffers.

Superficially, the two men appear to have little in common. Gingrich, 69, is a lifelong politician and consummate Washington insider whose trajectory has famously taken him through three wives and three religious renderings: the Lutheranism of his birth, the adaptable Southern Baptism of most of his adult life, and now, a Bible-thumping new Catholicism.

Adelson, 78, born to Jewish Ukrainian immigrants in Dorchester, Mass., crawled his way out of the New England working class and, in addition to his vast wealth, is known for a stable and enduring second marriage to Miriam Ochshorn Adelson, with whom he has two children.

She is apparently the key to the one subject that links the two men, the country of her birth, Israel.

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According to most reports, Adelson got to his mid-fifties before ever really thinking about Israel. Then, a single trip to the Jewish homeland changed his life. When he got back to the United States, the divorced Adelson started telling friends he was interested in meeting an Israeli wife. A mutual friend set him up with Miriam, a physician and expert on addictions. Together they have developed two principal enduring passions and philanthropic commitments: centers for the treatment of drug addicts, and Israel.

The Adelsons have always maintained a mainstream but clearly right-wing line regarding Israel. They are major supporters of the American Israel Political Action Committee, of Birthright, an organization that brings Jewish youth on “roots” trip to Israel, and they love Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s conservative prime minister, as well as Gingrich, who has long been a fervent defender of Israel.

Not much is known about Gingrich in Israel, but it is thanks to support from Adelson that, in Israeli media reports, he is almost universally referred to as “Netanyahu’s friend.” There is no public information confirming an actual bond between the prime minister and the former speaker of the House, but Netanyahu is, coincidentally, a thrice-married politician known for a messy personal life and for playing to his religious and conservative base.

And both men benefit greatly from Adelson’s support.

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It was in order to help a future Netanyahu candidacy that Adelson, in 2007, established Israel Hayom (Israel Today) a daily tabloid newspaper that quickly rose to have the widest circulation in the country. The newspaper was founded on the conviction, widespread among the Israeli right-wing since Netanyahu’s first term in office in the mid-90s, that the media held a deep-seated antipathy to Netanyahu.

A much-repeated rumor, impossible to verify, has it that Adelson has told Israeli friends he is happy to lose even $150 or $200 million dollars on the venture.

Conservative estimates hold that for now, he has lost at least several tens of millions of dollars. The paper boasts an extensive and expensive list of journalists and analysts, it is printed in massive quantities and distributed widely and for free, yet it does not display advertising in sufficient quantities to offset significant costs. It is a rich man’s luxury.

Israelis uncomfortable with the paper’s big shadow have bestowed it with a jokey moniker, Bibiton, a play on Netanyahu’s nickname, Bibi, and on the Hebrew word for newspaper, Iton.

On Thursday, new revelations about just how deeply Netanyahu is entwined with the Adelson's newspaper came to light, and now threaten to blow open an unsavory, and perhaps illegal, link between the American billionaire and the prime minister.

Israel’s Channel 10 revealed Wednesday night that Dror Eydar, a media columnist for the Adelson-owned daily, who frequently pens irate articles accusing the Israeli media of an anti-Netanyahu bias, is simultaneously on the prime minister’s payroll, as a speechwriter and adviser.

This is the first indication that a direct connection may exist between the prime minister’s staff and the paper, which while right-wing and pro-Netanyahu, has always maintained a line of neutrality.

It remains unclear just how much the scandal will affect one of the largest media outlets in the country, but some expect there will be resignations from within the prime minister's office.

To entertain the notion of how big a player the Israel Hayom is in the diminutive and struggling Israeli media market, the mere question of where Israel Hayom is printed is a matter of life or death for several other daily newspapers. Israel HaYom is now printed at the presses owned by the liberal, intellectual and highly regarded Ha’aretz, ideologically Israel Hayom’s antagonist.

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The owner of a rival paper, the popular, mass distribution daily Ma’ariv, is known to be vying for the printing contract, which is worth about 100 million shekels, or about $27 million. Whatever Adelson decides could determine, at the twitch of his wrist, the fate of either of these established, traditional national papers.

Not the least of the issues that create unease among wide swathes of Israelis is the fact that Adelson, a controversial and enigmatic whale that has taken virtual residence in the local media pond, is a foreigner residing abroad. He has never pretended to be an Israeli. But whatever decision he makes, in the words of Ma’ariv columnist and Channel 10 analyst Ofer Shelah, “is not a decision for which he will pay any price. We will. Yet the future of pluralism in the Israeli media market may reside in his hands.”

Mordechai Kremnitzer, a professor of law at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and an expert on the media, points out two positive aspects of Adelson’s emergence on the Israeli scene.

“After many years in which the Israeli right wing claimed it was discriminated against by what was perceived as a generally left-wing media, and after many years in which this was a real perception held by many Israelis, now it is very difficult to make that case. Israel Hayom has the largest readership in the nation, and it is without question a right-wing operation.”

Secondly, in Israel’s very small and concentrated media market, with very few published papers, “the simple addition of another one is a positive thing.”

“The problem,” he said, however, “is that because the paper is distributed for free, the pressure this puts on other papers — that are already struggling to survive — is huge. This could even cause the collapse of another newspaper or papers, and if that happens, it should be viewed with real concern. It would be very negative, principally because it would not be the result of free competition among outlets, but it would simply be a consequence of the huge amount of money Adelson has at his disposal.”

An additional and related concern, Kremnitzer said, is the influence a foreign citizen can acquire on the free market of opinions in Israel.

“And even more worrisome than that is the question of the independence of the prime minister’s judgment when he becomes dependent on a person who is not an Israeli citizen and on a source of funds that is foreign,” he said.

No Israeli law restricts foreign ownership of media outlets, and Adelson’s activities are not challenged even when they are called into question for influencing Israel’s democracy.

“In my opinion, everything Sheldon Adelson has done is completely legal and legitimate,” said Moshe Negbi, a legal analyst for the Voice of Israel radio and a professor of communications at Hebrew University. “I’m sure Sheldon Adelson is not operating for any personal advantage. He does not personally need Netanyahu. He’s not advancing his own interests. I think he believes with his whole heart that Netanyahu is the best medicine for all of Israel’s problems. He has very right-wing views in many areas, and it is his right. In addition, he is willing to spend his own money to advance his ideas and his ideology.”

“It is part of his freedom of expression to use his money to advance his opinions. It’s the same as Amos Shocken, [the owner of Ha’aretz] who I admire greatly, who is willing to lose a lot of money to advance his point of view,” Negbi added.

Negbi’s concern lies with the “inability of the capitalist, democratic system to find the tools to regulate censorship that is brought on by business people who deal in media. There is no legal way to say to a person with money how he can manage his own property.”

“A generation ago, the concern was with governments’ attempts to control opinion. Now, the person who controls such a popular paper has tremendous power over what the public hears and does not hear, and therefore over the public’s political opinions."

The issue is worldwide, but Israel’s case, according to Negbi, is particularly extreme due to its size. Israel’s total population is 7.5 million people, about the population of northern California’s Bay Area.

Despite the legal propriety of his actions, Adelson, who is accustomed to operating with a very wide berth, occasionally skirts the customs and ethics of Israel’s media world in a manner that raises eyebrows, or sometimes, causes fury.

The latest revelations made by Channel 10, a struggling commercial network known for a bold and authoritative investigative style, are only the latest in a series of skirmishes that threaten his reputation in Israel.

Last September its news division broadcast a critical but unchallenged profile of Adelson’s global casino operations. In reaction, Adelson threatened to sue. Both Channel 10’s news director and its legal counsel examined the claim and determined that no apology was due. But Channel 10 shareholder Ronald Lauder, another conservative American Republican and a friend of Adelson, thought otherwise and ordered that an apology be extended.

When the apology was issued on the main news broadcast last week, outrage ensued, including the resignation of two senior Channel 10 executives.

“This is exactly the crux of the matter,” Shelah, the columnist, said. “The media is at its knees and apologizing for something its professional authorities determined required no apology because they depend on the ongoing financial stream from someone who is a non-resident of the state. In this case, two of them.”

“That two people live in the US and have a relationship does not bother me. And Adelson was just normal in demanding an apology he did not deserve. But the problem was Lauder, who forced this behavior on Channel 10,” he added.

Lauder, of the Lauder cosmetics fortune and a former ambassador to Austria, is also president of the World Jewish Congress and is, like Adelson, close to Netanyahu. In 2011 alone, he pumped an estimated $16 million into Channel 10 to keep it operational.

The realization that in a moment of pique Adelson was able to rock Israel’s entire media world and possibly impact upon a government decision regarding debt relief for Channel 10 caused a nationwide shudder and reconsideration of his influence.

The latest revelations are sure to underscore the concern, expressed by Kremnitzer, the law professor, that Adelson may influence day to day decisions in the prime minister’s office.

"If Channel 10 were obliged to apologize for a broadcast not due to proper procedure like the correction of a mistaken pronouncement, this is clearly a grave abuse of the power of influence. This is what I mean when I say ‘negative and dangerous,’” he said.

The scandals have caused much worried flippancy in Israel about the political Kabuki theater Adeslon may have been dreaming up this winter, in which Gingrich and Netanyahu, both his protégés, could have a run at running a new US-Israel relationship.

“We are a very little country. And into this crucible Sheldon Adelson arrives, with a legitimate motivation. He sees a leftist liberal media and says, ‘I will establish a right-wing conservative balance,’ you know — fair and balanced — and balance out the media market. It’s all well, except for the problem that invariably arises when someone who literally has no budget limits is willing to invest his unending amount of money in Israel," Shelah said. "What do you do then?”

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