Jewish-American billionaire casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, a power broker and philanthropist known in his later years for his patronage of US President Donald Trump and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, has died at the age of 87.
Adelson, who owned the Las Vegas Sands gambling empire, died from complications related to treatment for non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, Sands and his wife, Miriam Adelson, announced Tuesday.
Born in Boston in 1933, the son of a cab driver saw stunning success in the business world before becoming one of the Republican Party’s most influential benefactors and a key figure in Israeli philanthropy and politics.
Blunt yet secretive, Adelson resembled an old-fashioned political boss and stood apart from most American Jews, who for decades have supported Democrats by wide margins. Adelson was considered the nation’s most influential GOP donor over the final years of his life, at times setting records for individual contributions during a given election cycle.
The super-donor, who also owned the influential Israel Hayom tabloid, rarely spoke publicly but in a 2016 Washington Post column endorsing Trump, he defended his right to opine.
“Despite being the grandson of a Welsh coal miner and the son of a Boston cab driver, I’ve had the remarkable experience of being part of almost 50 different businesses in my more than 70-year business career,” he wrote.
“So, tell me I’m not a conservative-enough Republican or I’m too hawkish on Israel or whatever else you may think, but I think I’ve earned the right to talk about success and leadership,” said Adelson.
In his last years, Adelson’s influence over American and Israeli political life took an outsized turn with both Netanyahu and Trump in power. He was credited as the driving force behind Trump’s decisions to move the embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and exit the Iran nuclear deal.
Adelson came around slowly to Trump, who during the campaign had said he would be “neutral” in negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. Trump even ridiculed his initial liking for Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, tweeting in 2015, “Sheldon Adelson is looking to give big dollars to Rubio because he feels he can mold him into his perfect little puppet. I agree!”
It was a reputation he and his wife, Miriam, had earned after almost single-handedly bankrolling the group behind Newt Gingrich’s presidential bid in 2012 before shifting their personal fortune toward Mitt Romney’s campaign.
Adelson eventually endorsed Trump, but remained hesitant through much of 2016.
The Adelsons ended up backing Trump to the tune of $30 million in 2016. They followed that by contributing $100 million to the Republican Party for the 2018 midterm elections. In all, Adelson donated over $250 million to GOP candidates and super PACs since 2015.
But after Trump’s surprise victory, the new president spoke often with Adelson and embraced his hardline views on the Middle East. Adelson, in turn, aided Trump financially, including $5 million for his inauguration, and supported him through his media holdings.
During his presidency, Trump’s Israel policies recalled the right-wing views on the Jewish state favored by the Adelsons, and he awarded Miriam the Presidential Medal of Freedom for her medical philanthropy.
“To protect the sacred heritage of the Jewish faith, Miriam and Sheldon have supported Jewish schools, Holocaust memorial organizations, and helped Jewish Americans visit the Holy Land,” Trump said during a reception in the White House’s East Room.
Adelson was a leading opponent of the nuclear deal that the United States, under then-president Barack Obama, negotiated with Iran over its rogue nuclear program, and gave donations to Republican candidates who opposed the deal. He was widely credited as a key player in Trump’s decision to withdraw from the accord.
In comments in an appearance at Yeshiva University in New York in 2013, he said the US should drop a nuclear bomb in the Iranian desert, “that doesn’t hurt a soul,” in order to stop Iran’s nuclear program. “And then you say, see, the next one is in the middle of Tehran.”
At the same event, he said, “There’s no such thing as the Palestinian people. They have fooled the world very successfully.”
Last year, Adelson cemented the United States’ decision to move its embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem 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.
Adelson also recently hit the headlines when convicted spy Jonathan Pollard and his wife Esther flew to Israel on his private jet.
When asked at a gambling conference what he hoped his legacy would be, Adelson said it wasn’t his glitzy casinos or hotels, but rather his impact in Israel. He donated $25 million, a record sum for a private citizen, to Israel’s Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial. He established a think tank in Jerusalem.
In the US, Adelson helped underwrite congressional trips to Israel, helped build a new headquarters for the lobbying group the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), and later was a top supporter of the Israeli-American Council, whose conferences have attracted top Republicans (Vice President Mike Pence) and Democrats (House Speaker Nancy Pelosi). He sponsored Birthright trips to Israel for young Jewish adults that were criticized by some participants as intolerant of opposing views.
His attachment to Israel was lifelong and so deep that he once said he wished his military service had been in an Israeli uniform instead of an American one.
According to The New York Times, Adelson’s first business venture was selling toiletry kits to motels. He cycled through a number of businesses as a serial entrepreneur, including running charter tours, before founding the Comdex computer trade show when he hit upon the idea of renting cheap floor space and then hiring it to trade conventions at a higher price.
“To work with Sheldon you need to have a coat of Teflon,” Jason Chudnofsky, chief executive of Comdex under Adelson from 1987 to 1995, told the newspaper.
“His yelling was legendary,” said Peter B. Young, a public relations man who worked with Adelson during the Comdex years.
But the business was a success, earning Adelson and his partners millions.
Adelson and his associates, said to be known internally at the company as “the boys,” then bought the Las Vegas Sands Hotel and Casino for $128 million, using part of the land to build a massive convention center.
In November 1996, Adelson demolished the Sands, much to the chagrin of many who saw it as an iconic building on the Strip, and in its place built The Venetian.
The Adelsons, whose conservative views and devotion to Israel were well known, were also proprietors of Israel Hayom, widely seen as a Netanyahu mouthpiece, and the Las Vegas Review-Journal.
As the owner of Israel Hayom, Adelson provided testimony in Case 2000, an Israeli graft probe in which Netanyahu is charged with agreeing to push legislation weakening the newspaper in exchange for positive coverage from rival tabloid Yedioth Ahronoth.
He reportedly told police that he was “surprised, disappointed and angered” to learn of conversations between the publisher of Yedioth and Netanyahu, whom he was considered close with.
In a leaked transcript from an August 2018 police interview, Adelson vowed to never again meet with Netanyahu after learning of the alleged agreement.
In 2021, Forbes magazine estimated Adelson’s wealth to stand at $35 billion as the result of being the largest shareholder in the Las Vegas Sands company, which owns casinos in Las Vegas, Singapore and Macau, China.
Adelson is survived by five children from two marriages — he divorced his first wife, Sandra, in 1988. He then married Israel-born Dr. Miriam Farbstein.
Through the Adelson Family Foundation, Sheldon and Miriam donated hundreds of millions of dollars to charitable causes. The stated primary purpose of the foundation is “to strengthen the State of Israel and the Jewish people.”
They donated hundreds of millions of dollars to Birthright, which funds trips to Israel for young Jews from around the world and gave to a medical school in the West Bank settlement of Ariel.
They also paid for the founding of an addiction treatment clinic in Tel Aviv in 1993 and another clinic in Las Vegas seven years later, where it was said Miriam Adelson herself sometimes treats patients. They used their money, political connections and newspapers in attempts to quash marijuana decriminalization and legalization measures in the US and Israel.
In 2019, it was announced that Adelson was undergoing treatment for non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and was unable to work full-time because of the side effects from medication he was taking. Adelson also suffered from peripheral neuropathy, a condition that affects the nervous system.
Agencies contributed to this report.