Backed by deep pockets, Adelson made his mark with an unwavering focus on Israel

Friends of billionaire acknowledge his influence had much to do with his wealth, but say his determination to advance his hawkish pro-Israel agenda made him an unstoppable force

Jacob Magid

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US bureau chief

US President Donald Trump alongside Las Vegas Sands Corporation Chief Executive and Republican mega donor Sheldon Adelson before speaking at the Israeli American Council National Summit in Hollywood, Florida, December 7, 2019. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)
US President Donald Trump alongside Las Vegas Sands Corporation Chief Executive and Republican mega donor Sheldon Adelson before speaking at the Israeli American Council National Summit in Hollywood, Florida, December 7, 2019. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

NEW YORK — As the US presidential campaign began to heat up in late mid-2016, New York investor Michael Steinhardt got a call from his longtime friend Sheldon Adelson, who was interested in meeting the Republican frontrunner, Donald Trump.

Steinhardt didn’t know the president-to-be, but he had met Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner in a previous business venture.

“I reached out to Jared and within a day, Trump was on a plane to Las Vegas to meet Sheldon,” Steinhardt recalled in a Tuesday interview with The Times of Israel, hours after Adelson’s death from complications related to treatment for non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma was announced.

The two tycoons hit it off.

“I think [Adelson] had strong views as to things that would improve US-Israel ties, and he felt that Trump could and would be beneficial to that relationship,” Steinhardt explained.

US President Donald Trump receives a menorah from Las Vegas Sands Corporation chief executive and Republican mega donor Sheldon Adelson, left, and his wife Miriam Adelson at the Israeli American Council National Summit in Hollywood, Florida, December 7, 2019. (AP/Patrick Semansky)

Adelson and his wife Miriam went on to become Trump’s biggest donors, pouring tens of millions of dollars into the Republican nominee’s campaign and then adding another $5 million to his inaugural committee.

That commitment would go on to pay serious dividends as Trump crossed off just about every item on a conservative Zionist’s wish list in the four years that followed. Those close to Adelson credited the billionaire with helping advance many of those policy decisions, saying that while his money gave him access to the world’s most powerful leaders, it was his laser-focused commitment to the Jewish state that ensured those relationships paid off for Israel.

Take no prisoners

Adelson, the Boston-born son of Jewish working-class immigrants, didn’t visit Israel until he was in his mid-50s, around the same time he began to build a casino empire that would eventually be worth billions and transform him into one of the world’s richest men.

He landed at Ben Gurion Airport in 1988 wearing the shoes of his father Arthur, a cab driver who Adelson said had been too poor to reach the Jewish state before his death.

Friends told the New York Times that that first trip served as an awakening for Adelson on support for Israel.

“He fell in love with the country,” former business partner Ted Cutler told the paper.

In this Sept. 26, 2016, file photo, former mayor of New York City Rudy Giuliani, kisses Miriam Adelson’s hand as he arrives for the presidential debate between Democrat Hillary Clinton and Republican Donald Trump at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y. (AP/Patrick Semansky, File)

That passion intensified with his 1991 marriage to his second wife, Miriam Ochshorn, an Israeli.

Those who know Adelson said that his long-held “take-no-prisoners” mentality also contributed to what became a firmly hawkish stance on the Jewish state.

With money to back up his views, Adelson has been credited with helping foster the GOP’s adoption of hardline pro-Israel policies, though it would take until Trump’s term in office beginning in 2017 for many of the top items on his agenda to come to fruition, from moving the US embassy to Jerusalem to recognizing Israeli sovereignty on the Golan Heights.

“It is impossible to overstate the significance that Sheldon Adelson along with his wife Miriam had on shaping US policy with regard to Israel,” Republican Jewish Committee executive director Matt Brooks told The Times of Israel on Tuesday.

While friends and associates acknowledged that much of Adelson’s influence was due to the fact that his pockets were deep, they were quick to point out that his ability to zero in on issues he cared about was what made him so revered.

“I think his influence was in part because he was a major giver, but also because he had very strong views about certain things — the Jewish people and Israel,” explained Steinhardt.

Las Vegas Sands Corporation Chief Executive and Republican mega donor Sheldon Adelson, bottom right, sits onstage as a video screen depicts President Donald Trump at the Western Wall in Jerusalem before a speech by Trump at the Israeli American Council National Summit in Hollywood, Florida, on Dec. 7, 2019. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

“Money gives you a seat at table, but it doesn’t buy you influence and access,” said Brooks. “One of the reasons for his success and why he succeeds more than others is because of the power he had to be a compelling advocate for the things he believes in.

“Whether he is in the Oval Office, the Prime Minister’s Office, a senator’s office, or a Congressman’s office, his first goal was to be an advocate for the Jewish people and the Jewish community, not for his own personal gain.”

While Adelson used every meeting with an elected official to lobby on Israel’s behalf, some of his positions went beyond even Israel’s own, at times placing him at odds with mainstream Israelis and the pro-Israel community.

In a 2014 address to one of his largest beneficiary organizations, the Israel American Council, Adelson played down the importance of the Jewish state remaining democratic. “So Israel won’t be a democratic state,” he said. “So what?”

“I think God didn’t say anything about democracy,” he continued. “He didn’t talk about Israel remaining as a democratic state.”

His politics eventually put him at odds with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, and matters came to a head after the mainstream pro-Israel lobby backed economic aid for the Palestinians. Until that move in 2007, Adelson had been a major AIPAC donor, contributing significantly to its new office building in Washington.

“I don’t continue to support organizations that help friends committing suicide just because they want to jump,” he told the JTA news agency after cutting ties with the group.

“He was always against a Palestinian state and he’d make that clear with whomever he met with in government, be it in the US or Israel,” said Mort Klein, the president of the conservative Zionist Organization of America and a longtime friend of Adelson’s.

Sheldon Adelson addresses the crowd at a dinner following the inauguration ceremony of Ariel University’s new medical school on August 19, 2018. (Jacob Magid/Times of Israel)

Put his money where his mouth was

“In contrast to most major Jewish philanthropists… he was not a fan of the Jewish institutional structure,” said Steinhardt. “He was an individualist. He chose by himself the things he felt were important to back and ignored other pitches he felt were lacking.”

Pitches that succeeded included the Steinhardt-founded Birthright, which offers young Jews in the Diaspora a free ten-day trip to Israel. Adelson was Birthright’s largest contributor.

He and his wife earned the same distinction from Yad Vashem when in 2006 they donated $25 million to the Holocaust memorial museum in Jerusalem, a donation they would later match with another $25 million. The Adelsons also bankrolled the establishment of a medical school at Ariel University, the first such Israeli institution in the West Bank.

Around the mid-1990s, the Adelsons became close with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife Sara. The casino magnate reportedly funneled a significant amount of cash into Netanyahu’s campaign in 1996, which saw him crowned premier for the first time.

Roughly a decade later, Adelson bankrolled the establishment of Israel Hayom, a free daily that critics have branded a Netanyahu mouthpiece.

A man passes out the free newspaper Israel Hayom to passersby on Ben Yehuda Street in Jerusalem, January 4, 2011. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

In 2014, an ultimately unsuccessful legislative effort sought to muzzle the tabloid, which boasts the highest circulation in the country, seemingly targeting it for helping prop up Netanyahu and having an outsized influence on Israeli politics.

According to an indictment against the premier, Netanyahu offered to back the law in an attempt to squeeze favorable coverage out of rival daily Yedioth Ahronoth. The revelation reportedly angered the Adelsons, though they nonetheless continued funding the paper, which maintains its pro-Netanyahu slant.

In a leaked transcript of Miriam Adelson’s testimony to police as part of their corruption probe into Netanyahu, she recalled how Netanyahu’s wife Sara had lashed out at her, claiming that Israel Hayom was not being supportive enough of the premier. “If Iran gets nuclear weapons and Israel is wiped out, I’ll be to blame, because I’m not defending Bibi,” Miriam Adelson is said to have told police.

Not love at first site

It was in the US, however, where Adelson was most known as a political powerbroker.

Originally a Democrat, Adelson would only become involved in Republican politics in the late 1990s, helping bankroll conservative candidates who supported pro-Israel policies, starting with former House speaker Newt Gingrich.

Adelson recalled his political transformation in a 2005 speech to the Republican Jewish Coalition (RJC), saying all it took was a pep talk from William H.T. Bush, brother of former president George H.W. Bush. “He explained to me what Republicanism was all about… so I got to learn about it and I switched immediately!”

Aside from throwing hundreds of millions of dollars into races to back Republican candidates, Adelson also funded trips to Israel for freshmen Republican Congress members.

The casino owner frequently participated in the missions, “serving as their de facto tour guide and showing them up close the complex challenges that Israel faces,” Brooks said. “So many of them brought those lessons back and we see the fruits of that in how strongly pro-Israel those Republicans have become.”

“He was such an effective communicator and was able to help educate so many people,” the RJC director added.

That wasn’t to say that he always got along with Republican leadership. He broke with the Bush administration over its promotion of a two-state solution and sought to convince the 43rd president not to pursue the agenda in 2007.

US billionaire businessman Sheldon Adelson (L) meets with Benjamin Netanyahu during a ceremony at the Congress Hall in Jerusalem, August 12, 2007. (Flash90)

An Israeli official told the New Yorker in 2008 that Bush would go on to describe the encounter as having featured “this crazy Jewish billionaire, yelling at me.”

Adelson’s relationship with Trump bore more fruit, but it did not always appear that the two casino operators would get along.

An official from his Las Vegas Sands Hotel told ProPublica and WNYC in 2018 that Adelson “didn’t have a whole lot of respect for Trump when Trump was operating casinos. He was dismissive of Trump.”

In a 1999 interview with the South China Morning Post, Adelson said Trump and real estate mogul Steve Wynn, another casino rival, “have very big egos,” and “the world doesn’t really care about their egos.”

Las Vegas Sands Corporation Chief Executive and Republican mega donor Sheldon Adelson, bottom right, sits onstage as a video screen depicts President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence before a speech by Trump at the Israeli American Council National Summit in Hollywood, Florida, on December 7, 2019. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

But the feelings appeared mutual.

After Adelson endorsed Florida Senator Marco Rubio in the 2016 Republican presidential primary, Trump accused Adelson of having outsized influence in politics.

“Sheldon or whoever… They have pretty much total control over the candidate,” he told the media, later tweeting “Sheldon Adelson is looking to give big dollars to Rubio because he feels he can mold him into his perfect little puppet. I agree!”

Promises made

Once Trump won the Republican nomination, Adelson — following the Steinhardt-arranged meeting — began to back the eventual president.

“Having Orthodox Jews like Jared and Ivanka next to him and so many common people in interest gave a level of comfort to Sheldon,” Ronn Torossian, a PR executive and friend of the two moguls, told ProPublica then.

Two days after Trump won the election, Adelson flew to New York to meet the president-elect once again.

Upon exiting the meeting, Adelson phoned ZOA’s Klein, elated.

Sheldon Adelson, chairman of Las Vegas Sands Inc., speaks about its new resort, The Venetian, under construction, July 10, 1997, during a VIP tour of the preview center in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/Lennox McLendon)

“‘Mort, I just left Trump Tower. I’m so excited. I urged Donald Trump, and he promised me that during his four-year term he’d move the embassy to Jerusalem,'” said Klein, recalling his conversation with Adelson. “Sheldon was a major factor in that happening.”

The embassy move had been a decades-long endeavor for the Adelsons, beginning in the 1990s when they convinced Gingrich to pass legislation mandating the relocation.

In May 2018, the Adelsons sat in the front row alongside Netanyahu and the Kushners at the Jerusalem embassy unveiling ceremony.

Afterward, Sheldon Adelson approached Klein, who was also in attendance, and gushed, “‘President Trump promised he would do this and he did it.’ And he almost became emotional. ‘And look, Mort, he did it.’”

Last year, Adelson cemented the Trump decision with his purchase of the ambassador’s residence in Herzliya near Tel Aviv, making it harder for future presidents to reverse the move. At a cost of more than $67 million, the sprawling estate on the Mediterranean coast appears to be the most expensive single residence ever sold in Israel.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu 2nd left, his wife Sara Netanyahu, left, Senior White House Adviser Jared Kushner 3rd left, US President’s daughter Ivanka Trump, center, US Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, right, and US ambassador to Israel David Friedman, 2nd right, attend the opening of the US embassy in Jerusalem on May 14, 2018. (MENAHEM KAHANA/AFP)

There were signs that the two had begun to grow apart in the last few months, however.

In the run-up to the 2020 election, Trump reportedly became irate with Adelson in a phone call, saying that he was not doing enough to bolster the campaign.

Adelson, who had already given hundreds of millions to Republican election efforts, chose not to respond.

The two were said to have made up a week later and the Adelsons would go on to donate even more to the Trump campaign. But after the Republican incumbent refused to acknowledge his subsequent loss, the Adelson-owned Las Vegas Review-Journal published an editorial slamming Trump’s “baseless” claims of voter fraud.

The president warmly eulogized Adelson in a Tuesday statement, saying, “His ingenuity, genius, and creativity earned him immense wealth, but his character and philanthropic generosity his great name.”

“Sheldon was also a staunch supporter of our great ally the State of Israel. He tirelessly advocated for the relocation of the United States embassy to Jerusalem, the recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights, and the pursuit of peace between Israel and its neighbors,” the statement continued.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at the official opening ceremony of the US Embassy in Jerusalem, May 14, 2018. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Speaking to The Times of Israel on Tuesday, Jason Greenblatt, who served as the Trump administration’s special representative for international negotiations, made a point of primarily crediting the president for US policy in the Middle East over the last four years.

However, he acknowledged that surrounding Trump “were a group of advisers and others who are very knowledgeable about Israel and its many challenges.

“Sheldon Adelson, together with his wife Miriam, were among those who offered serious advice, strong encouragement and critical insight on many of President Trump’s policies on Israel,” he said.

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