Sheldon Adelson, the CEO of the Las Vegas Sands Corporation and one of the wealthiest men in the world, is an important financier of hawkish "pro-Israel" groups, as well as a prominent supporter of rightwing politicians in both the United States and Israel. Among the organizations he has backed are the Republican Jewish Coalition, the Zionist Organization of America, Freedom's Watch, and the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
Adelson has spent hundreds of millions of dollars to influence the outcome of U.S. elections, which has drawn enormous criticism from observers. Prominent New York Times writer Thomas Friedman has said that Adelson "personifies everything that is poisoning our democracy and Israel's today." The Times columnist wrote in early 2015 that "it is troubling that one man, with a willingness and ability to give away giant sums, can now tilt Israeli and American politics his way at the same time."
Adelson promotes extremist views with respect to Israeli security. For instance, he has denied that Palestinians exist as a distinct Arab people and promoted engaging in nuclear war to stop Iran's nuclear enrichment program. In late 2013, Adelson told an audience at Yeshiva University in New York Citythat the United States should drop a nuclear bomb somewhere in the Iranian desert. "Then," Adelson said, "you say, 'See! The next one is in the middle of Tehran. So, we mean business. You want to be wiped out? Go ahead and take a tough position and continue with your nuclear development.'"
Adelson has also pushed for U.S. strikes on Syria, even offering to whip congressional votes in favor of a strike for President Obama.
Adelson has been active in efforts to promote a positive, "beyond the conflict" view of Israel, financing a website called "Rethink Israel" that promotes Israeli social policies on everything from gay rights to fur coats. "Highlighting positive aspects of Israel, a country that truly is innovative and interesting, does help develop a fully-rounded picture," wrote one commenter for the Daily Beast's "Open Zion" blog. "And this is surely a better use of Adelson's money than funding Newt Gingrich's presidential campaign or subsidizing a free Israeli newspaper that relentlessly glorifies the image of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu." But such an approach "basically tries to change the subject by talking about any aspect of life in Israel that has nothing to do with the Palestinians or the occupation, from boutique wineries to drip agriculture. It works great among people who already love Israel uncritically—and falls flat among everyone else."
Asked whether Israel would be able to maintain any pretentions of being a democracy if it pursues his preferred policies, Adelson responded, "So Israel won't be a democratic state. So what?"
Adelson has been a major donor to Republican political campaigns, having spent hundreds of millions of dollars in recent elections. His campaign spending began to receive concerted public attention during the 2012 U.S. elections because of his massive donations to groups backing the campaigns of Newt Gingrich and later Mitt Romney/Paul Ryan, as well as for his lavish donations to the Karl Rove-backed Crossroads GPS and PACs linked to the billionaires Charles and David Koch and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.). All told, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, Adelson and his spouse spent nearly $100 million trying to influence the election that year.
In advance of the 2016 presidential election cycle, reports emerged that Adelson and his spouse were looking to invest in a more "electable" GOP presidential nominee. "This time, the Adelsons are plotting their investments based not on personal loyalty but on a much more strategic aim: to help select a Republican nominee they believe will have broad appeal to an increasingly diverse national electorate," reported the Washington Post in March 2014. "This strategy would favor more-established 2016 hopefuls such as former Florida governor Jeb Bush, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, and Ohio Gov. John Kasich. All four will descend this week on Adelson's luxury hotel in Las Vegas, the Venetian, for an important step in what some are calling the 'Sheldon Primary.'" The Post report noted that Adelson enjoyed a particularly warm relationship with Mike Huckabee, who Adelson had introduced at a recent Zionist Organization of America awards ceremony as "a great person, a great American, and a great Zionist."
In November 2014, Adelson attended a meeting of prominent right-wing Jewish American donors in New York City hosted by the Zionist Organization of America. The event, which was apparently intended to build support for Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), who was the guest of honor, also featured a number of "pro-Israel" Christian Zionists like, Christians United for Israel chairman John Hagee and Rep. Michelle Bachman (R-MN), and major backers of neoconservative groups like Home Depot co-founder Bernard Marcus.
The meeting was noteworthy in part for comments Adelson reportedly made after a private two-hour meeting he had with Cruz. According to the New York Observer, Adelson said that Cruz was "too right wing" and "a longshot to win the nomination." According to the Observer, Adelson called the newspaper after publication of the story "to dispute that characterization of his reaction to Mr. Cruz. Mr. Adelson made clear to the Observer that he was the only person in the room with Mr. Cruz and thus the only one in a position to know how he felt about the Senator."
In April 2015, Adelson courted many of the Republican presidential candidates during the Republican Jewish Coalition's (RJC) annual meeting, including Cruz, Texas Governor Rick Perry, and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC).
Just days before the RJC event, Politico reported that Adelson was favoring Florida Sen. Marco Rubio. The paper reported that Adelson views Rubio as "the future of the Republican Party" and that Rubio "has emerged as the clear front-runner" to win the "Sheldon Adelson primary" according to "nearly a half-dozen sources close to the multibillionaire casino mogul."
In October 2015, Politico reported that Adelson's "momentum had strongly shifted to the Florida senator" and that a "formal endorsement" could come "as soon as" the end of October. The piece added: "Rubio and Adelson have grown increasingly close, with the senator phoning the billionaire several times a month to provide in-depth updates on the state of his campaign. The two men also have detailed policy discussions, especially about international affairs and Israel."
Responding to the news, Donald Trump tweeted: "Sheldon Adelson is looking to give big dollars to Rubio because he feels he can mold him into his perfect little puppet. I agree!"
Jeb Bush, once thought to be a contender in the Adelson primary, is believed to have largely fallen out of favor with Adelson after he appointed former Secretary of State James Baker, a realist who at times has been critical of Israel, as one of his few non-neoconservative foreign policy advisors. A May 2015 National Review article reported: "Adelson sent word to Bush's camp in Miami: Bush, he said, should tell Baker to cancel the speech. When Bush refused, a source describes Adelson as "rips***"; another says Adelson sent word that the move cost the Florida governor 'a lot of money.'"
Adelson has a track record backing losing candidates. After the 2012 elections, commentators noted that key campaigns targeted by Adelson-associated super PACs turned out to be among the election's most important losers. Adelson gave $1.5 million to Independence Virginia PAC, which supported Republican candidate George Allen, who lost to Democrat Tim Kaine. Other failed 2012 congressional campaigns bolstered by Adelson cash included those of GOP Rep. Allen West (R-FL), Florida Senate candidate Connie Mack, New Jersey House candidate Shmuley Boteach, California House candidate Abel Maldonado, and Arizona House candidate Vernon Parker. Only one prominent candidate backed by Adelson—Nevada Sen. Dean Heller, whose top donor was Adelson's Sands Corporation and who eked out a narrow victory over Democrat Shelley Berkley—ultimately proved victorious.
Adelson also spent lavishly on a high-profile effort by the Republican Jewish Coalition to turn out traditionally Democratic Jewish voters for Mitt Romney, principally using the issue of Israel as a wedge. Exit polls revealed, however, that Barack Obama's support among Jewish voters in 2012 nearly matched his 2008 showing, with almost 70 percent of them casting their ballots for the Democrat.
Adelson's political donations during the 2012 election cycle generated ire across the political spectrum. Even Sen. John McCain, a Romney surrogate, criticized Adelson's campaign cash, arguing during a June 2012 PBS interview: "Much of Mr. Adelson's casino profits that go to him come from his casino in Macau, which says that obviously, maybe in a roundabout way foreign money is coming into an American political campaign. That is a great deal of money, and we need a level playing field and we need to go back to the realization ... that we have to have a limit on the flow of money and corporations are not people."
Discussing why Adelson was committed to donate "limitless" amounts of money to influence the elections, the New York Times reasoned: "The first answer is clearly his disgust for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, supported by President Obama and most Israelis. He considers a Palestinian state "a stepping stone for the destruction of Israel and the Jewish people," and has called the Palestinian prime minister a terrorist. He is even further to the right than the main pro-Israeli lobbying group, the American Israeli Public Affairs Committee, which he broke with in 2007 when it supported economic aid to the Palestinians. … Mr. Adelson's other overriding interest is his own wallet. He rails against the president's 'socialist-style economy' and redistribution of wealth, but what he really fears is Mr. Obama's proposal to raise taxes on companies like his that make a huge amount of money overseas."
Despite the poor showings of his chosen candidates during the 2012 cycle, Adelson has expressed a willingness to keep spending. "I don't cry when I lose," he told the Wall Street Journal. "There's always a new hand coming up."
Adelson demonstrated his gambling philosophy on campaign spending by switching candidates at different stages of the 2012 campaign. He initiallysupported the candidacy of former speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives Newt Gingrich. In early 2012, Adelson contributed $5 million to Winning Our Future, a super-PAC supporting Gingrich that spent lavishly on negative TV ads against rival presidential candidate Mitt Romney. These attack ads were widely believed to have helped Gingrich win the South Carolina primary. Adelson's spouse, Miriam, followed up with an additional $5-million donation to the PAC aimed at influencing the 2012 Florida primary.
The Adelsons' support for Gingrich attracted enormous criticism, including from the right because he financed negative attack ads on Romney's past investment practices that seemed to criticize the practice of rapacious capitalism. The support also underscored the impact that the controversial 2010 Supreme Court ruling on Citizens United, which allowed unregulated donations in election campaigns, had on politics. "The Adelsons' contributions on Mr. Gingrich's behalf," reported the New York Times, "illustrate how rapidly a new era of unlimited political money is reshaping the rules of presidential politics and empowering individual donors to a degree unseen since before the Watergate scandals."
For his part, when queried about why Adelson supported his campaign, Gingrich said in an interview on NBC: "He knows I'm very pro-Israel. That's the central value of his life. I mean, he's very worried that Israel is going to not survive."
Discussing the Gingrich-Adelson relationship, the Daily Beast reported: "When Newt Gingrich called the Palestinians an 'invented people' and accused the State Department of coddling those 'who would censor the world on behalf of Islam,' it may have seemed to some to be head-scratching harshness. But his views on foreign policy, and particularly the Middle East, appear to be in lockstep with his staunchly pro-Israel backers, including the casino-owning billionaire who is one of Gingrich's most generous supporters."
In June 2012, after Gingrich dropped out of the presidential race, a "source" in the Adelson camp told Forbes that Adelson was prepared to spend "limitless" amounts of cash supporting Romney's candidacy. Reported Forbes in June 2012: "Adelson, who has built Las Vegas Sands into a global casino empire, will do 'whatever it takes' to defeat Obama, this source says. And given that Adelson is worth $24.9 billion—and told Forbes in a recent rare interview about his political giving that he had been willing to donate as much as $100 million to his initial presidential preference, Newt Gingrich—that 'limitless' description telegraphs potential nine-digit support of Romney."
"Pro-Israel" in Israel
In 2009, the rightist Zionist Organization of America (ZOA) awarded Adeslon the "Theodor Herzl Gold Medallion," which is given to people who make a "unique, lasting, and historic contribution to the cause of Zionism and the Jewish people." Speakers at the event included Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu (by video), Vice Prime Minister and former Israel Defense Forces Chief-of-Staff Lt.-Gen. Moshe Yaalon, and Rep. Eric Cantor (R-VA).
ZOA leader Morton Klein used the event to denounce the Likud-led government's partial 2010 moratorium on Jewish settlement construction in the West Bank, calling the policy "racist." During his talk after receiving the Herzl award, Adelson commented that "Each time [Klein] opened up his mouth, I thought it was me talking." According to Forward, "A spokesman for Adelson stated later that his support for Netanyahu 'has not changed.' But Klein disclosed that Adelson will travel to Israel soon to lobby Netanyahu against the settlement moratorium."
In 2011, Adelson presented the award to the flamboyant and widely disparaged rightwing commentator Glenn Beck.
Adelson's support for Netanyahu has also been at the center of a dispute over the future of Israel's print media. In 2007, Adelson founded Israel Hayom (or Israel Today), a free Hebrew-language newspaper that by the end of 2009 had a print circulation of some 250,000. According to Forward, on its very first day in circulation, Yisrael Hayom was "already one of the largest-circulation papers in the country. Adelson's new paper is drawing questions from other journalists, who worry about the mogul's connections to Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu, and also from the owners of other Israeli newspapers, who are a famously tight-knit club."
In response to the growing influence of Israel Hayom, the country's two largest Hebrew newspapers, Yedioth Ahronothand Maariv, began pushing a bill in late 2009 that would ban foreign ownership of newspapers (Adelson is a U.S. citizen). Haaretz, an English-language Israel daily, reported in January 2010 that Adelson's free tabloid posed "an existential threat" to the other Hebrew dailies. "Yedioth Ahronoth is bleeding and losing its hegemony. Maariv may fold in less than a year. The result is all-out war. Yedioth Ahronoth and Maariv are trying to silence Israel Hayom through a bill prohibiting foreign ownership of newspapers. Other bills are now in the pipeline. Meanwhile, in an amazing coincidence, the two newspapers are furiously assailing those perceived as Adelson's proteges: Benjamin and Sara Netanyahu. Bibi's immediate ouster is not only a political aspiration, but now also an essential business interest of the two veteran afternoon papers."
Wading into the dispute, Adelson claimed in a high-profile interview with the Jewish Telegraph Agency (JTA) in December 2009 that he and his newspaper are not political. Responding to a journalist's statement that "In Israel, your political involvement is well known," Adelson declaimed, "What political involvement? I am not involved politically in Israel. Period. And everybody thinks I started the newspaper Israel HaYom purely to benefit Bibi. Nothing could be further from the truth. I started the newspaper to give Israel, Israelis, a fair and balanced view of the news and the views. That's all. It is not 'Bibi-ton.' It is not a newspaper started for and operated for Bibi. And this is the propaganda of our competitors to say to their customers, 'Don't take Israel Hayom seriously because all it is is a promotion for Bibi. …' All it is is just competitive propaganda. I am not involved politically whatsoever."
Commented one Israel observer, "Adelson's self-proclaimed rejection of politics must be relatively new. Until the end of 2008 he was the primary funder of the pro-Republican, pro-Iraq War and pro-Bush administration Freedom's Watchadvocacy group."
Adelson's philanthropy is directed though the Adelson Family Foundation, which he created in January 2007. Among its grantees has been the Adelson Institute for Strategic Studies, a project of the Shalem Center, a Likud Party-aligned group based in Jerusalem that claims on its website to engage "in research, education, and publications in areas that include Jewish moral and political thought, Zionist history and ideas, Biblical archaeology, democratic theory and practice, strategic studies, and economic and social policy."
During the George W. Bush presidency, Adelson was supportive of the administration's Middle East policies, though he opposed its efforts to jump start peace talks on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, including the Condoleezza Rice-led Annapolis talks in late 2007. After the influential American Israeli Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) issued a statement supporting the talks, which were aimed at a creating a framework for a two-state solution, Adelson told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency that he was withdrawing his support for AIPAC. He said: "I don't continue to support organizations that help friends committing suicide just because they say they want to jump."
As a backer of Freedom's Watch, whose key leaders included former Bush White House spokesman Ari Fleischer and the strip-mall magnate Melvin Sembler, Adelson brought widespread media attention to his efforts to push for hawkish, Israel-centric U.S. policies. As the Washington Post reported: "Many in Freedom Watch's donor base—including Adelson … and Sembler … —have always been strong supporters of Israel. The group's initial ad blitz in defense of Bush's troop buildup in Iraq came naturally out of those interests."
Commenting on the Post story, commentator Jim Lobe wrote: "I don't doubt that the group's donors consider themselves 'strong supporters of Israel,' but what precisely is meant by that? ... It implies that neoconservatives have Israel's best interests at heart, which, as in the case of the Iraq war (and last summer's conflict with Hezbollah) and in so many other instances, is demonstrably not the case. It also puts those individuals or organizations—particularly in the American Jewish community—that are very concerned about Israel but that believe that the neoconservatives have actually undermined the country's security in a kind of political limbo."
After his 2008 falling out with AIPAC, Adelson moved to increase his support of groups to the right of AIPAC, such as the Republican Jewish Coalition, the Israeli American Council (IAC), and the activities of right-wing Rabbi Shmueley Boteach. Reported New York Magazine in September 2015: "In the past two years, Adelson has also given more than $20 million to a group called the Israeli American Council (IAC), which was founded in 2007 in Los Angeles as an apolitical cultural organization for West Coast Israeli expats. Adelson, according to a person familiar with his thinking, intends to make IAC 'a counterweight to AIPAC.'"
In June 2015, Adelson, along with other hardline "pro-Israel" billionaires like Haim Saban, held a secret conference aimed at developing strategies to counter the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel, which calls for economically pressuring Israel to end its occupation of Palestinian territories.
Adelson reportedly "dubbed his effort" to counter BDS "the 'Campus Maccabees'—in honor of the Jewish army in the Hanukkah story—and promised to bundle as much as $50 million to the anti-BDS cause." According to New York Magazine "'[The Adelsons] think, We've got to fix BDS because our son is going to college, and they're scrambling to quote-unquote do something before he shows up at school.'"
In mid-2007, Adelson attended a conference in Prague titled "Democracy and Security" that was cosponsored by the Adelson Institute for Strategic Studies, the Czech Foreign Ministry, the Prague Security Studies Institute, and Spain's Foundation for Social Studies and Analysis (FAES), headed by former conservative Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar. Conference participants included Natan Sharanksy, the late former Czech President Vaclav Havel, and Sen. Joseph Lieberman, the "independent Democrat" from Connecticut who is closely associated with the neoconservative faction in the United States. Also in attendance were a number leading U.S. hawks, including the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies' (FDD) president Clifford May; the American Enterprise Institute's Richard Perle, Michael Rubin, Michael Novak, Joshua Muravchik, and Reuel Marc Gerecht; Herb London, John O'Sullivan, and Anne Bayefsky of the Hudson Institute; Bruce Jackson, a former director of the Project for the New American Century; and Tod Lindberg of the Hoover Institution.
According to an Inter Press Service-sponsored blog, "Sharansky, chairman of both the Adelson Institute and of One Jerusalem, a group created to oppose any move under the Oslo peace process to recognise Palestinian sovereignty over any part of Jerusalem, is a former Soviet refusenik whose 2004 book, The Case for Democracy, helped inspire Bush's ringing 2005 Inaugural Address ... Aznar and Havel are co-chairs of the 'international' section of the Committee on the Present Danger (CPD), which was launched by FDD in June 2004 and whose website is www.fightingterror.org. Sen. Joe Lieberman, an honorary co-chairman of CPD, keynoted the opening session. In other words, the conference constituted a kind of 'Neo-Conservative International' designed to rally support for 'dissidents,' primarily from the Islamic world, and give them hope that 'regime change' in their countries is possible much as it was in the former Soviet bloc almost 20 years ago."
Adelson has also been a major political donor since long before he began supporting Newt Gingrich's 2012 presidential campaign. He donated more than $1 million to political candidates between 1984 and 2007, according to data gathered by campaign donor search engine Newsmeat. The vast majority of his donations during this period, more than $800,000, went to key Republicans, including George W. Bush, Rick Santorum, Tom Delay, and Rudy Giuliani.
Impact of Economic Crisis
In an October 2008 article for Right Web, Eli Clifton wrote: "With shares in his casino empire plunging 65 percent, Adelson could cut back on his charitable giving. In fact, he announced in September he would do just that. 'On September 9, billionaire casino mogul Sheldon Adelson announced that he was reducing his donations to Birthright Israel in 2009 and 2010, respectively, to $20 million and $10 million, after giving $70 million over the previous two years,' reported the Forward."
In December 2008, Freedom's Watch, a neoconservative-aligned pressure group that received most of its funding from Adelson, shuttered. The right-wing Washington Times reported: "Freedom's Watch was foiled this year by stiff political and economic headwinds and ended up spending far less than the reported $200 million budget the organization had hoped for, and its dependence on Mr. Adelson was part of its undoing. Only a year ago, Mr. Adelson, 75, was the third-richest man in America, with a net worth of $28 billion. But since then, Mr. Adelson's company, Las Vegas Sands Corp., has lost 95 percent of its stock value. … Mr. Adelson contributed most of Freedom's Watch's money, sources familiar with the group's operation said. The organization's reliance on his largesse was such that over the summer all staffers were herded in front of a video camera to sing 'Happy Birthday' to Mr. Adelson."
Biography and Legal Issues
Forbesmagazine's summary of Adelson's career reads: "Son of a Boston cabdriver. Borrowed $200 from his uncle to sell newspapers at age 12. Made first fortune in trade shows. Created computer industry's premier show, Comdex, mid-1980s; ran 70% profit margin renting space for 15 cents a square foot and leasing it to exhibitors for up to $40 a square foot. Sold show to Japan's Softbank for $862 million in 1995. Then Las Vegas: bought old Sands casino for $128 million, demolished it to build the $1.5 billion all-suites Venetian casino resort and the 1.2-million-square foot Sands Convention Center. Changed the way Vegas does business by enticing conventioneers to Sin City midweek, taking emphasis off gambling. Sold suites for $250 a night, added high-end retailers, celebrity-chef restaurants. Old guard mocked him: 'I loved being the outsider. I didn't care what those guys said.' Took Las Vegas Sands public December 2004. Building $1.8 billion Palazzo resort adjacent to arch-rival Steve Wynn's Wynn Las Vegas. Big bet on Asia: opened $265 million Sands Macau casino May 2004, recouped entire investment in one year. Ramping up construction on Cotai Strip: $6 billion project will place 7 hotel-casinos on Macau's 2 islands, Taipa and Coloane. Cornerstone of project will be $1.8 billion Venetian Macau. Last May won coveted Singapore gaming license. Plans to build $3.5 billion Marina Bay Sands on 51-acre site with a view of the city's skyline."
In 2015, Adelson had to provide testimony at a trial which, according to the Daily Beast, "threatens his gambling empire and reputation." The case was brought by Steve Jacobs, the former CEO of Adelson's Sands China. "Among other things, Jacobs accuses Adelson and the company of unethical business practices, bribing public officials, maintaining a relationship with a company tied to a Chinese triad crime boss, and facilitating prostitution. Jacobs says Adelson was involved in all these shady dealings, and that he was fired in part for blowing the whistle on Adelson."