Netanyahu, Bennett vie for Adelson’s support at West Bank event
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Netanyahu, Bennett vie for Adelson’s support at West Bank event

Jewish Home leader seen cozying up to casino mogul in Ariel amid reports of rift between Netanyahu and billionaire philanthropist

Raoul Wootliff covers politics, corruption and crime for The Times of Israel.

Minister of Education Naftali Bennett (C) with his wife Gilat greeting Sheldon Adelson (R) and his wife Miriam at the cornerstone setting ceremony for the new school of medicine at Ariel University, June 28, 2017. (Courtesy)
Minister of Education Naftali Bennett (C) with his wife Gilat greeting Sheldon Adelson (R) and his wife Miriam at the cornerstone setting ceremony for the new school of medicine at Ariel University, June 28, 2017. (Courtesy)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Education Minister Naftali Bennett both lavishly praised billionaire Jewish businessman Sheldon Adelson at an event Wednesday amid speculation the casino magnate was shifting his support from the former to the latter.

Adelson was in Israel to lay the cornerstone for a new School of Medicine and Health Sciences at Ariel University in the West Bank settlement.

During his speech, Netanyahu switched to English to hail Adelson and his wife Miriam as “not only good friends but huge supporters of the people of Israel and the State of Israel.”

Bennett did likewise, saying that Adelson not only invested in keeping Jewish memory alive, by donating to the Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum, but also invested in Israel’s present.

Education Minister Naftali Bennett speaks at the cornerstone setting for The University of Ariel's new medical school, June 28, 2017. (Michael Dimenson)
Education Minister Naftali Bennett speaks at the cornerstone setting for The University of Ariel’s new medical school, June 28, 2017. (Michael Dimenson)

“I don’t know how many of you know, but the Adelsons have invested and donated to the combat units of Kfir, Golani and Givati, to thousands of soldiers. So you’re investing in our present, but you’re also investing into the future of the Jewish people and the future of our education. Todah Rabah [Thank you] for everything,” said Bennett, who heads the Orthodox-nationalist Jewish Home party in the Netanyahu coalition.

But it was the optics of the event that suggested Adelson may be inclining to put his immense financial clout, and the influential Israel Hayom newspaper backing, behind Bennett.

At the celebratory meal, it was Bennett who sat next to Adelson, and the two were spotted heartily toasting one other during a lengthy private conversation.

A spokesman for the Jewish Home leader described the meeting as “positive” and told The Times of Israel that Bennett was “looking forward to working together with Adelson in the future on other projects that contribute to Israel.”

Netanyahu, meanwhile was seated at a different table and during the main ceremony, sat a distance from Adelson, awkwardly separated by one of his cabinet ministers.

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Bennett, the leader of the pro-settlement Jewish Home and seen as the main challenger to Netanyahu’s hegemony over the Israeli right, appears to be ideologically close to Adelson, who is known for his ultra-hawkish views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Ariel University, located in the settlement of that name, plans to double in size within the next five years, according to a plan promoted by Bennett. Adelson, a long-time supporter of West Bank settlement projects, will provide about $20 million for the major expansion. Part of the project, which includes an additional 10 to 12 facilities, is to build a four-year medical school to be named after Adelson and his physician wife, Miriam.

The Ariel University Center campus (photo credit: CC-BY Michael Jacobson/Wikipedia)
Ariel University in the West Bank (CC-BY Michael Jacobson/Wikipedia)

Speaking at the event, Bennett said the medical school will not just create doctors, but also help consolidate Israeli rule over the contested territory.

“This place is not only about results. It is about soul,” Bennett said. “Ariel’s medical school will train doctors – and facilitate dialogue and engagement among Israelis. All while strengthening our connection to the Land of Israel.”

Netanyahu, addressing the ceremony, vowed that Ariel will always remain part of Israel. “We are building in Ariel and Ariel will always be part of Israel,” he said.

Bennett has met Adelson before, but Wednesday’s meeting was the most public display of camaraderie the two have shown yet, and comes as Netanyahu’s relationship with the billionaire benefactor appears increasingly strained.

A certain frostiness was discerned by some when Netanyahu addressed the annual Birthright Mega Event on Monday but appeared not to greet Adelson, who was attending as the organization’s patron. The event came just hours after Adelson was questioned by the Israel Police’s Lahav 433 serious crimes unit in Lod for a second time in under a month as part of an ongoing corruption investigation into Netanyahu. (Adelson gave evidence as a witness and is not suspected of any wrongdoing.)

It what is known as “Case 2000,” police are probing whether Netanyahu and Arnon “Noni” Mozes, publisher of the Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper, hatched a deal under which the prime minister would advance legislation to reduce Israel Hayom’s circulation in exchange for more favorable coverage from Yedioth.

Adelson reportedly told Israel Police on Monday that he was “surprised, disappointed and angered” to learn of conversations between Netanyahu and the publisher of a rival newspaper about an alleged quid pro quo deal that would have hobbled his own publication.

In excerpts of the conversations, Netanyahu reportedly said he would need to consult with Adelson, and also used a seemingly disrespectful nickname for his long-term benefactor. “I want to talk to the gingy,” Netanyahu was quoted as saying, using a term often used in Israel as a nickname for redheads.

Adelson also met with police in May. At the time, he reportedly told them that he never discussed the alleged deal with Netanyahu.

US billionaire businessman Sheldon Adelson with Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem, August 12, 2007. (Flash90)
US billionaire businessman Sheldon Adelson with Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem, August 12, 2007. (Flash90)

Since its founding a decade ago, Israel Hayom has been staunchly loyal to the prime minister. Its unfailing support of Netanyahu has been characterized by the playing down of his failures, the hyping of his achievements and the lashing of his critics. Furthermore, it has shied away from praising his rivals.

A report on the front page of the June 16 edition of Israel Hayom describes a legislative initiative by Education Minister Naftali Bennett (screen capture)
A report on the front page of the June 16 edition of Israel Hayom describes a legislative initiative by Education Minister Naftali Bennett (screen capture)

But media analysts have noted a shift in its coverage of late that may suggest a cooling in the paper’s support for Netanyahu and his family.

Last Friday, Israel Hayom reported on its front page about a minister’s plan to pass a law requiring the nigh-impossible support of two-thirds of the Knesset before Jerusalem could be divided in the framework of any peace deal with the Palestinians. The headline, in big, bold letters, was accompanied by a photo of Bennett.

On Tuesday, the paper ran a follow-up story with an uncharacteristic headline directly attacking Netanyahu — “Jewish Home: The prime minister is blocking the law to protect Jerusalem,” it read.

Raphael Ahren contributed to this report.

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