The death of US billionaire Sheldon Adelson raises the question whether we are witnessing the end of a conservative era in US and Israeli politics. For the moment, it's too early to tell. Such notions were mooted on previous occasions when a Democratic president was elected in the US, but now the situation is different because of the departure of two of the most prominent conservatives from the political stage - Adelson, and Donald Trump.
Trump failed in the US presidential election partly because of the coronavirus pandemic, but also to a great extent because of his personal conduct and his assault on government institutions and on the mainstream media, which he regarded as an enemy. The appalling final act on Capitol Hill last week brought to a head this side of him, an almost anarchistic streak, opposed to conservative values that sanctify democracy and its institutions.
Benjamin Netanyahu appears to be in a very different position from that of Trump. He still heads the Israeli government, he is running the Covid-19 vaccination campaign with internationally acknowledged success, and according to the opinion polls he heads the largest political party in Israel as we head towards the March election. But because of his behavior and the criminal proceedings against him, a substantial opposition camp has formed against him, to a large extent composed of former Likud figures and others on the right of Israeli politics. At this stage, there appears to be a real prospect that Netanyahu will not be able to form a coalition, and the chances of a coalition made up of his opponents are growing.
Both of these men owe much of their political strength to Adelson.
Adelson, whose net worth was estimated by "Forbes" magazine at $35 billion, was one of the largest donors to Republican Party candidates, and also to conservative causes in the US. In the previous decade, he and his wife Miriam donated quarter of a million dollars to President George W. Bush. After that, he contributed to initiatives such as the Freedom Watch lobby, which supported the global war on terror that Bush initiated.
The Adelsons donated millions to Republican candidates for both houses of Congress, and also to Republican governors of various states. Adelson participated in the formation of the Republican Jewish Coalition which he headed, and in general was greatly involved in attempts to influence the Jewish vote in the US, which mostly goes to the Democratic Party. Among other things, he supported a campaign against the policies of President Barack Obama on Israel and the Middle East when Obama ran for his second term in 2012.
Adelson supported Trump after the latter became the Republican candidate for the presidency, and was the largest contributor to his campaign. He used this standing to promote the dramatic change that Trump made in US policy in the Middle East, including the transfer of the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. In 2020, Adelson made political donations estimated at $180 million, mainly to the Trump campaign, but also to other Republican candidates for office.
Adelson's position on Israel and the Middle East was on the extreme right. He opposed the formation of a Palestinian state, and supported annexation and the imposition of full Israeli sovereignty over Judea and Samaria. He supported campaigns and initiatives connected to Jewish settlers in the territories, but his main influence on Israeli society was, of course, through the press.
Adelson initially entered the Israeli market through free newspaper Ysraeli, and later through the "Yisrael Hayom" ("Israel Today"), also distributed free. The third stage was acquisition of control of right-wing newspaper "Makor Rishon".
Under his leadership and that of his wife Miriam, "Yisrael Hayom" became unabashedly and aggressively a newspaper of the right, and it demonstratively supported Netanyahu and his policies, particularly during election campaigns.
There was a severe blow to this involvement when the recordings of the conversations between Netanyahu and Arnon (Noni) Mozes, publisher of Hebrew daily "Yedioth Ahronoth", were revealed. Being distributed free, "Yisrael Hayom" had severely damaged "Yedioth Ahronoth"'s previously dominant position among Israeli newspapers, and Netanyahu was heard offering Mozes legislation that would curb "Yisrael Hayom" in return for favorable coverage in "Yedioth Ahronoth". The Adelsons were furious, and cut ties with Netanyahu, but after a while it appeared that the unreserved support had returned.
As for the future, journalists at "Yisrael Hayom" say that Miriam Adelson, who is officially the publisher of the newspaper and is involved in the running of it, has more than once promised that it is a long-term venture and that she is committed to it, both commercially and ideologically. According to various claims, the annual loss borne by the Adelsons runs at about NIS 100 million, but since they saw the newspaper as an ideological rather than a profit-making enterprise, it will probably not disappear with Sheldon Adelson's death.
Whatever changes take place now largely depend on his widow Miriam: whether she continues to support conservative causes in a Republican Party that is trying to find its way after the Trump period, and whether she will continue to act similarly in Israel.
Disclosure: The Yisrael Hayom print shop provides printing services to "Globes".
Published by Globes, Israel business news - en.globes.co.il - on January 13, 2021
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