Sheldon Adelson Is Ready to Buy the Presidency
Photo: David Becker/Las Vegas Review-Journal
In a few weeks, when the nuclear deal Barack Obama negotiated with Iran comes before Congress, it’s all but certain that not a single Republican will vote in support of it. With the possible exception of Maine’s Susan Collins, who has yet to reveal her position, each of the 246 Republicans in the House and 53 Republicans in the Senate has indicated his or her opposition to the deal. Not that a mere vote could possibly express the intensity of even that unanimous opposition — or the fervid support for Israel that lies behind it. “It is a fundamental betrayal of the security of the United States and of our closest allies, first and foremost Israel,” Texas senator and GOP presidential candidate Ted Cruz has said. Cruz’s 16 Republican-primary opponents have denounced the deal in similar terms. One of them, Mike Huckabee, has gone so far as to argue that Obama “will take the Israelis and march them to the door of the oven.”
American Jews are not hard-liners on Israel. Obama won 69 percent of Jewish voters in 2012, even as American conservatives accused him of purposefully undermining the country’s security and status in the region. Indeed, according to a 2013 Pew study, only one in three American Jews feel a strong emotional attachment to the Jewish state. But over the past 30 years, and especially in the last decade, the GOP’s attachment to Israel has become remarkably fierce, to an extent that is basically unprecedented in modern American politics. On issue after issue — from military aid to settlement policy — the GOP now offers Israel unconditional and unquestioning support, so much so that some Republicans now liken the country to America’s “51st state.” The person most responsible for this development is the multibillionaire casino magnate and Republican megadonor Sheldon Adelson.
Adelson, who grew up poor in the Dorchester section of Boston and never graduated from college, made and lost several fortunes before he struck it rich for good in 1979 by developing the Las Vegas computer trade show Comdex with a few partners. Ten years later, Adelson and his partners spent $128 million to buy Las Vegas’s Sands Hotel and Casino, which he used as a toehold to steadily expand his — and the company’s — gaming operations. Today, the Las Vegas Sands Corporation, of which Adelson is, at 82, still the chairman and CEO, is a publicly traded company with massive hotels and casinos in Las Vegas, Pennsylvania, China, and Singapore. According to Forbes, Adelson, who owns a majority of Sands stock, is worth about $26 billion; he is said to keep close tabs on where he ranks on the magazine’s listing of billionaires, which is calculated daily, mentioning to associates when he has moved up. And although his ranking has slipped a bit in recent years — once in the top ten, he is currently 18th on that list — Adelson has been known to boast that he is still “the richest Jew in the world.”
As such, he is unaccustomed to being ignored. Among the 17 candidates currently vying for the Republican presidential nomination, most are also competing in the “Adelson primary”: the hotly contested race for the donor’s heart, which runs through Israel. Adelson’s support for the Jewish state is so intense that he opposes American efforts to broker a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, arguing that the Palestinians are “an invented people” whose “purpose … is to destroy Israel”; rather than negotiate with Iran, Adelson has called for a preemptive nuclear strike against the Islamic Republic. The stakes of getting on his good side are enormous. In 2012, Adelson spent $20 million supporting Newt Gingrich, single-handedly keeping him afloat during the primaries and doing great damage to Mitt Romney in the process; then, after Gingrich finally fell, Adelson shelled out $30 million to plump up Romney. All told, Adelson reportedly spent $100 million against Obama in 2012. In 2016, says one prominent Republican operative, “every candidate thinks, I can either be the Gingrich of the cycle, meaning Sheldon could give me oxygen, or I don’t want to be on the opposite side of who his Gingrich is this cycle. They want to benefit from Sheldon’s largesse or make sure no one else benefits from it.”
Adelson has suffered from a neurological condition affecting his legs that often confines him to an electric scooter and can make leaving Las Vegas a burden. So the candidates go to him. In his office at the Venetian Hotel, accessed via an inconspicuous elevator just off the casino floor, Adelson receives a steady stream of presidential hopefuls. “Can you think of worse optics for Jews than having the casino magnate sitting out in Vegas and having all these Republican candidates schlep out to see him and kiss his ring?” frets one prominent Jewish Republican. And when the candidates aren’t physically visiting Adelson, they’re keeping close to him in other ways. Marco Rubio reportedly phones Adelson every other week. “Rubio calls and says, ‘Hey, did you see this speech? Did you see my floor statement on Iran? What do you think I should do about this issue?’ ” says one person close to Adelson. “It’s impressive. Rubio is persistent.” Lindsey Graham is said to call almost as often. When Scott Walker took his first trip to Israel, in May, he did so aboard one of Adelson’s airplanes. Adelson loves the attention, but with such a crowded 2016 field, even he occasionally gets worn out. After Ben Carson paid him a visit in Las Vegas earlier this year, Adelson complained to a friend, “There are too many candidates!”
Naturally, there are complaints about Adelson, too. The New York Times’s Thomas Friedman has written that Adelson “personifies everything that is poisoning our democracy and Israel’s today.” But more interesting than liberal gripes are the grievances of those who share Adelson’s ideological convictions, many of whom consider him more of a bomb-thrower than an institution-builder. Despite his enormous wealth, not to mention more than 65,000 employees, the billionaire’s political operation is decidedly mom-and-pop. Besides his wife and an elderly secretary named Betty Yurcich, who has trouble using the web, Adelson has little in the way of an actual organization; until recently, visitors to his personal office had to watch where they stepped, as Yurcich’s tiny dog was a frequent presence and occasionally soiled the carpeting. (The dog died last month.) “Look at the Koch brothers, who have this enormous infrastructure,” says one Republican operative. “For better or worse, when they start going in a direction, they keep going. It’s a supertanker. It’s got a whole crew, and it takes a team to turn it. With Sheldon, there’s no process, no system, no team, no bureaucracy, no nothing. It’s just him and his wife.”
Those who receive money from Adelson typically do so only after meeting with him personally, and he has been known to abruptly and capriciously cut off funding for an offense as minor as a quote in a newspaper article that he didn’t like. In the business world, “he’s been enormously successful by having the right instincts combined with a sheer decisiveness and willingness to tell everyone basically to fuck themselves,” explains another person who has worked with Adelson. “The political world is not quite like that. You have to bring people around to your position. You have to work with people, you have to persuade and compromise.”
And you have to be persuadable. In addition to lacking an organization, Adelson lacks advisers, or at least ones whose advice he heeds. Although he frequently kibitzes with leading lights of the conservative and pro-Israel worlds, Adelson, as one of his interlocutors says, “does more talking than listening.” A prominent member of the American Jewish community who has dealt with Adelson complains: “The problem with billionaires is that they don’t have anyone around them to say, ‘Hey, billionaire, you know that really fucking stupid thing you just said? That was really fucking stupid.’ Sheldon especially lacks that person around him.”
“Sheldon’s the rare person who can afford to make a $100 million mistake,” says an occasional adviser. “Why does he fly on a 747? Because he doesn’t like to stop to refuel when he goes to Israel and Singapore. Anything about Sheldon is because he can.”
In the 2016 presidential race, Adelson insists he will not repeat the mistake he made in 2012 of backing a spoiler. “I think he feels guilty,” says one person who has discussed the matter with him. “I think he knows how much he fucked up.” Adelson has told several associates that he will likely not decide on a candidate until he’s had an opportunity to watch a few debates. Jeffrey Wiesenfeld, an Israel advocate who’s friendly with Adelson, says the mogul’s priority this time is to support a candidate who’s electable: “He’ll match his emotionalism on this issue with some hard data. His principles and his desires remain the same, but I think he’s going to balance those with an empirically based judgment on the reality of the marketplace.”
Of course, thanks to Donald Trump, the Republican marketplace is a flaming mess at the moment. The challenge Adelson now faces is determining which candidate stands the best chance of defeating not only Hillary Clinton but also the man whose Las Vegas hotel is just a few clicks down Mel Tormé Way from the Venetian. While Trump boasts that his daughter converted to Judaism and blasts Obama as “the worst enemy of Israel,” his knowledge of the Middle East is sufficiently shallow that Adelson apparently believes Trump wouldn’t be an effective ally of the Jewish state.
But Adelson is also said to be conflicted about the various potential Trump-slayers. Scott Walker, despite intensive lobbying efforts, is viewed by many close to Adelson as insufficiently serious about Israel and foreign policy. (“Look, he’s the governor of Wisconsin,” says Morton Klein, the president of the Adelson-backed Zionist Organization of America. “He knows about cheese and cutting pensions.”) Rubio is a personal favorite but might lack the necessary ruthlessness to take out The Donald. Ted Cruz, meanwhile, is well positioned to appeal to the same GOP primary voters Trump’s currently energizing, but he is probably too conservative to beat Hillary.
Which brings Adelson to Jeb Bush, the candidate who seemingly has the best chance of slaying both Trump and Clinton but whose relationship with the mogul is as vexed as any of the Republican contenders. If Adelson really feels that backing Gingrich over Romney was a mistake in 2012, backing Jeb this time around would be a kind of atonement. But, frustratingly for Adelson, the heir apparent to the Bush dynasty has not always been so eager to play along.
In February, Bush released a list of 21 foreign-policy advisers to his campaign that included James Baker, who had served as secretary of State in Bush’s father’s administration and is beloved by the Bush family. He is also loathed by Adelson. To Adelson, and many other Jewish Republicans, Baker will always be remembered for his threats to curtail American aid to Israel as well as a remark he allegedly made when his hard-line policy on Israel was questioned. “Fuck the Jews,” Baker reportedly said, “they didn’t vote for us anyway.” Adelson’s suspicions about Baker were confirmed, in his mind, earlier this year when it was announced that the former secretary of State would be delivering the keynote address at the annual conference of J Street, the liberal American Jewish group that believes the United States should be more evenhanded in its treatment of Israel and its Arab neighbors. “J Street might as well be Hezbollah as far as Sheldon’s concerned,” says one prominent Jewish Republican who has discussed the group with Adelson. The announcement of Baker as a Bush foreign-policy adviser combined with the announcement that Baker would be speaking to J Street was, an Adelson associate says, “a one-two punch.”
Adelson, characteristically, decided to punch back. Working with other Jewish Republicans, he began lobbying the Bush campaign to disown Baker as an adviser or, at a minimum, force him to cancel the speech. Adelson and his allies furnished Bush-campaign aides with a dossier of opposition research on J Street, highlighting some of its past speakers who were accused of being anti-Israel as well as the group’s efforts to encourage Democratic lawmakers to boycott Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s address to Congress that March. Adelson’s lobbying effort ultimately reached Bush himself. “Jeb was warned,” says another Adelson associate. More than one prominent Jewish Republican donor reached out to Bush personally to tell him that Baker’s appearance was going to create problems for the candidate with them and Adelson.
Bush did not budge. “The message back was ‘I’m not going to tell James Baker what to do,’ ” the Adelson associate says. Baker gave his J Street speech in late March, strongly criticizing Netanyahu. Adelson became even more livid. He personally lambasted Florida multimillionaire Mel Sembler, one of Bush’s most generous Jewish supporters, and told others that Bush had cost himself his support. “Sheldon basically said Jeb is dead to him,” recalls one prominent Republican to whom Adelson vented. (A representative for Adelson denies this.)
But Bush is, in the end, a practical politician, and after Baker’s speech, he began trying to make amends. The candidate issued a statement repudiating Baker’s views on Israel; his campaign also hired as its official national-security adviser the hawkish John Noonan, who was blessed by Adelson and his allies. Bush even enlisted the help of his brother George W., whose strong support of Israel as president endeared him to Adelson. When the Republican Jewish Coalition (RJC), of which Adelson is a major funder, held its annual conference at the Venetian in April, the former president attended, presenting Adelson with a painting he’d made himself of Adelson’s Singapore casino. And in May, when Jeb appeared at a private meeting in New York with Republican donors — many of them Jewish and associates of Adelson — he told them that his most influential adviser on Israel and the Middle East was his brother. “Most people in the room thought that was very reassuring,” says one person who attended the meeting. “At the same time, they also thought, I hope he never says that in public during the general election.” That month, Jeb also made a personal pilgrimage to the Venetian to pay his respects. Today, Bush not only has been stalwart in his own opposition to the Iran nuclear deal but also, according to one veteran GOP foreign-policy hand, has worked to make sure that some prominent Republicans who do support the deal keep their support private. “If you notice, there’s been no major Republican dignitary who has come out for the Iran deal,” says that expert.
Bush’s efforts have borne some fruit, especially the personal visit. “Sheldon said they had a good meeting,” says one person who spoke with Adelson about it. “I don’t think Jeb is dead to him anymore.” Still, it’s not clear that Bush will win the Adelson primary — if only because, despite the lesson Adelson maintains he learned in 2012, some habits die harder than others. “Sheldon could spend $100 million attacking Jeb,” says one Adelson associate, “and then figure he’ll be welcomed with open arms if Jeb ends up on top.”
In 1973, Milton Himmelfarb, the late neoconservative sociologist, lamented in the pages of Commentary that Jews, as usual, had voted en masse for the Democratic candidate in the previous year’s presidential election. “Although American Jews had come economically to resemble the Episcopalians, the most prosperous of all white groups,” Himmelfarb wrote, “their voting behavior continued to be most like the voting behavior of one of the least prosperous of all groups, the Puerto Ricans.” Four decades later, when it comes to voting behavior, Himmelfarb’s observation remains true: It’s impossible to envision a scenario in which Hillary Clinton (or any Democratic nominee) doesn’t win the majority of Jewish voters in November of next year. But, of the two parties, it’s the GOP that has been completely transformed by a group of Jewish activists and donors. “Long term, do more Jews become Republicans? Who gives a shit?” says one prominent Jewish member of the GOP. “What matters is that the Republican Party as a whole has become unapologetically and unflinchingly pro-Israel.”
Even Jewish Republicans find this development astonishing. “When I was a kid, I told people I was Republican, but I never told them I was Jewish,” says the 53-year-old pollster Frank Luntz, “because I was afraid there was anti-Semitism in the party.” But the GOP’s hostility to Jews decreased in inverse proportion to the party’s affection for Israel — an embrace of the Jewish state that began in the 1980s under Ronald Reagan; continued with the politicization of Evangelicals in the ’80s and ’90s; and grew even tighter, after 9/11, during George W. Bush’s presidency. So tight that today, support for Israel has become a core issue for Republicans. Bill Kristol, the editor of The Weekly Standard and a regular speaker at Republican dinners across the country (as well as Milton Himmelfarb’s nephew), marvels at the degree to which Israel comes up in speeches and discussions at those events. “People stand up and say that they’re pro-life, pro-gun, anti-tax, and pro-Israel,” Kristol says. “It’s shorthand.” Luntz reports, “When I tell Republicans I’m Jewish today, they applaud.”
The turning point, they all say, was 2008 and the election of Obama. Whether it was his 2009 demand that Netanyahu institute a settlement freeze or the fact that he didn’t make a state visit to the Jewish state until his second term, Jewish Republicans are convinced that Obama doesn’t just want to put “daylight” between Israel and the U.S. (as he reportedly told a group of American Jewish leaders) but that he seeks to create an unbridgeable chasm. “If you’re a conservative,” says Noah Pollak, the executive director of the Emergency Committee for Israel and a leading Jewish Republican, “all the hostility and drama Obama has created in U.S.-Israel relations has clarified the stakes to such an extent that being pro-Israel is something akin to a litmus test, and rightly so.” Kristol adds, “You feel like under Obama, it’s more important.”
The donors feel the same. While there remain many rich, pro-Israel Jews who support Democrats — the Israeli-American billionaire Haim Saban, for instance, is firmly in Hillary Clinton’s corner — an increasing number of megawealthy American Jews appear to be defecting to the GOP. In 2014, the RJC’s annual meeting in Las Vegas had its largest turnout to date: 400 people who had each donated at least $1,000. Attendance at this year’s meeting in April topped 700. “There’s been a number of people who have come in who have been either independents or Democrats or hadn’t really been active in the political process,” boasts RJC executive director Matt Brooks, “because of the actions of the Obama administration and the abandonment of Israel by leading supporters in the Democratic Party right now.”
Of course, many in the Obama administration, including Obama himself, find the accusation of disloyalty to Israel infuriating. “The president has spent enormous amounts of political capital around the world standing up for Israel and oftentimes at some level of discomfort for different audiences,” says deputy national-security adviser Ben Rhodes. “If the litmus test is that you’re not in lockstep with this Netanyahu government — among the most right-wing governments in Israeli history — then you’re not supportive of Israel, it’s setting a bar that’s impossible for anyone to meet.”
And yet Republicans do meet it. To many Jewish Republicans, especially neoconservative intellectuals, Netanyahu is not only an ally but a friend — someone they first got to know personally in the 1980s, when he was the deputy chief of mission in Israel’s Washington, D.C., embassy and later Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations in New York. Now they — and their fellow non-Jewish Republicans — watch with admiration as Netanyahu simultaneously steers his country on a hawkish path and away from its socialist roots. “When a Republican sees Bibi speak before Congress,” says Kristol, “he sees someone who feels like an American conservative in terms of his emphases, his preference for markets, his admiration for Churchill, his thinking of the world as a tough place where you need to be strong.” After Netanyahu’s most recent speech to Congress in March, in which he lobbied against the proposed nuclear deal Obama was then negotiating with Iran, Greg Walden, an Oregon congressman and the chairman of the House Republicans’ campaign arm, approached a prominent Republican strategist and asked of the Israeli prime minister, “Can’t we get him to change his citizenship and run for president?”
Netanyahu’s congressional speech, which was arranged by House Speaker John Boehner and boycotted by some 60 Democratic members, was a watershed moment in the partisanization of Israel — a development that, along with the Zionification of the GOP, may prove to be one of the most enduring foreign-policy legacies of the Obama years. Even if the GOP never wins the Jewish vote or the most money from Jewish donors, Jewish Republicans have already seized control of their party’s foreign-policy platform for the foreseeable future. Under the next Republican president, one neoconservative foreign-policy thinker predicts, the American Embassy in Israel will be moved from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. American military aid to Israel, already substantial, will become even more substantial. “They’ll get whatever they want. They’ll get shit they don’t want. We’ll arm them to the teeth.” And it won’t just be Israel. On other national-security issues, ranging from domestic surveillance to Iranian nukes, the priorities of Adelson and his fellow Jewish Republicans are now the priorities of the GOP. “Now, when the GOP ultimately does succeed and takes back the White House,” this neocon says, “the hawks will have their way.”
What explains Adelson’s love for Israel? Like many Jews of his generation, he was raised in the shadow of the Holocaust and nurtured a deep affection for the Jewish state. But it was not until he met Miriam Ochshorn, an Israeli-born physician who in 1991 would become his second wife, that Adelson became so intense — and so profligate — in his support. Together with Miriam, Adelson’s charitable gifts have included $160 million to the Birthright Israel Foundation, which sponsors free ten-day trips to Israel for young American Jewish adults; $50 million to Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial and museum in Jerusalem; $25 million to Ariel University, which is located in an Israeli settlement on the West Bank; and $16.4 million to a nonprofit that seeks to land the first Israeli spacecraft on the moon. In 2013, during one of Adelson’s half-dozen annual visits to Israel, the mayor of Jerusalem made him an honorary citizen of the city. The New York Times reported that Adelson provided the entertainment for the ceremony: performers from the Venetian in Macau who sang “That’s Amore.”
Of course, Adelson’s involvement in Israel is political as much as philanthropic. He is a passionate backer — and friend — of Netanyahu’s. Both Sheldon and Miriam sat in the House balcony during the prime minister’s recent address to Congress, during which Miriam accidentally dropped her purse on the head of a Democratic congressman sitting below her. When Netanyahu speaks at the U.N. General Assembly, Adelson is typically afforded a front-row seat, and the two of them often get lunch afterward. (Last year, during their meal at Fresco by Scotto, the restaurant’s other patrons were required to go through a metal detector.)
But, unlike here, Adelson’s direct influence over national politics in Israel is extremely limited, thanks to some of the world’s strictest campaign-finance laws. While foreigners can donate to primary campaigns (in his recent primary, Netanyahu raised 90 percent of his money from Americans), in the general election only Israeli citizens and residents can make political contributions, which are capped at about $10,000 a year to a particular candidate for prime minister; as the Israeli journalist Gershom Gorenberg has written, “There’s no word for super-PAC in Hebrew.” But Adelson has found a way around these restrictions through the Israeli media. In 2007, he founded a free daily tabloid newspaper, Israel Hayom, which has become the country’s largest-circulation newspaper. The paper, which was once estimated to lose as much as $3 million a month, is viewed by many Israelis as a mouthpiece for Netanyahu, so much so that it is typically referred to as Bibiton (“Bibi” is Netanyahu’s nickname; iton is Hebrew for “newspaper”). Indeed, it was two years after the paper’s founding that Israeli voters returned Netanyahu to power. “Israel Hayom is Pravda, it’s the mouthpiece of one man — the prime minister,” Naftali Bennett, the leader of the right-wing Israeli Home Party and a sometime antagonist of Netanyahu’s, complained last year. Or, as Nahum Barnea, a prominent columnist for another Israeli newspaper, Yedioth Ahronoth, wrote in 2008: Israel Hayom “publishes only what Adelson himself would want to read — if he could read Hebrew, that is.” Perhaps Miriam, who can read Hebrew, translates for Sheldon. It wouldn’t be the only duty she performs for the paper. According to one person familiar with Israel Hayom’s operations, Miriam frequently arranges interviews for the paper’s reporters with American political heavyweights. (A representative for the Adelsons says that Israel Hayom arranges its own interviews.)
For many years, beginning in the early 1990s, Adelson’s preferred recipient for Israel-related giving in the United States was the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. AIPAC, the most venerable (and powerful) pro-Israel group in the U.S., has since its founding in 1951 cultivated, and enjoyed, bipartisan support.* According to one person familiar with the group’s finances, Adelson was AIPAC’s “largest individual donor,” routinely donating “high-six-figure or low-seven-figure gifts per year.” That was in addition to the $10 million he reportedly gave AIPAC to help build its gleaming Washington headquarters. But a year before the building opened in 2008, Adelson broke with the group. AIPAC had supported a letter, signed by more than 100 members of Congress and tacitly endorsed by the Israeli government, then headed by Netanyahu foe Ehud Olmert, requesting that the Bush administration boost economic aid to the Palestinian Authority. Adelson asked AIPAC to rescind its endorsement. According to a person familiar with the dispute, “AIPAC wouldn’t change its policy to bend to Sheldon’s wishes, and Sheldon walked away from AIPAC and took all his money with him.”
Much to the delight of other American Jewish groups to AIPAC’s right. In addition to backing the RJC, Adelson is reputed to be the biggest donor to the hard-line Zionist Organization of America (ZOA) and Christians United for Israel, as well as the various political efforts of Shmuley Boteach, the indefatigable Orthodox rabbi (and self-proclaimed “America’s Rabbi”) who once wrote a book called Kosher Sex and served as a “spiritual adviser” to Michael Jackson but who now devotes much of his considerable energy to pro-Israel advocacy. 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.” Thanks to Adelson’s donations, IAC has opened offices in Boston, Miami, New York, and Las Vegas; last November, the group held its inaugural Washington, D.C., conference, headlined by Mitt Romney, who had flown back from Alaska the previous week aboard one of Adelson’s private planes.
None of these organizations matches AIPAC’s pretense of bipartisanship, which suits some Jewish conservatives just fine. “You can be quote-unquote pro-Israel in AIPAC’s eyes without really doing a lot to be pro-Israel at moments of risk,” says Kristol. “At some point, you’re preserving bipartisanship at the expense of promoting the right policies.” This has been especially apparent, according to AIPAC’s conservative critics, in the fight over the Iran deal.
From the outside, it would seem that AIPAC has been as committed to defeating the Iran deal as any of the American Jewish groups to its right. AIPAC budgeted $25 million for television ads attacking the deal and has flown in nearly a thousand of its members to Washington to lobby members of Congress to vote against it. Obama himself seemed to single out AIPAC when he complained to Jon Stewart about “the lobbyists” and “the money” opposing the deal. And yet, among some Jewish Republicans, there are complaints that AIPAC has still not done enough — most of all by not threatening to rescind its support of any Democrat who votes for the deal. “On their most important issue,” complains one prominent Jewish Republican, “you can make promises to them and break them, you can take their money and speak at their events and say pro-Israel things and go around with the AIPAC stamp of approval and then totally fuck them — and it’s fine.” AIPAC’s apparent failure to scuttle the Iran deal is considered by some the greatest defeat in the group’s 60-year history.
But AIPAC’s struggles don’t necessarily mean Adelson has won. While its more conservative rival groups obviously benefit from the ideological space — to say nothing of the financial largesse — Adelson helped create when he broke with AIPAC, there’s a growing sense in the conservative pro-Israel world that the casino mogul’s political activities are ultimately counterproductive. The RJC, says one prominent Jewish conservative, “is like a tragedy. There should be a serious Republican Jewish organization, especially now, and it’s not serious. It’s basically become the vehicle for the Sheldon Adelson primary.” The IAC, meanwhile, remains a shadow of AIPAC. And Shmuley Boteach’s Adelson-backed political efforts are viewed by some as embarrassing, if not harmful. On the eve of AIPAC’s annual Washington conference in March, for instance, Boteach bought — with Adelson’s money, according to people familiar with the matter — a full-page advertisement in the New York Times accusing Obama’s national-security adviser, Susan Rice, of seeking genocide against Israel by supporting an Iranian nuclear deal. The ad was subsequently denounced by multiple Jewish groups. “If anything, it backfired,” complains one prominent Jewish Republican. “It did something the Obama people haven’t been able to do, which is get every Jewish organization to defend them.”
It’s enough that some pro-Israel activists are ghoulishly counting the days until the octogenarian Adelson is no longer around, and Miriam, who won’t turn 70 until next year, controls the family’s purse strings. “Miriam may seek to build a more substantial institution,” predicts one political operative, who cites the Adelsons’ medical philanthropy, which Miriam spearheads, as a model of effective giving. “She’s a formidable person. The smart people are already courting her.” Another operative who has worked with the Adelsons is more succinct: “She’ll be alive a lot longer than he will, and she’ll have all that dough and she’s a lot more sane.”
Already, in the 2016 race, Adelson is not the only donor at the GOP table. One relatively recent development is a new class of Orthodox Jews who, while not as wealthy as some of their less devout counterparts, are willing to part with a greater share of their fortunes. “There are a number of people who are writing $50,000, $100,000, $250,000 checks to super-PACs,” explains Ronn Torossian, a New York public-relations consultant who is friendly with some of these Orthodox donors. “The concept of donating money to charity is one that they understand.”
The candidate who’s been most aggressive at tapping this new pool of money is Cruz. Earlier this year, Nick Muzin, a top Cruz aide who himself is Orthodox, arranged for his boss to be a featured guest at the Prime Passover Experience — a ten-day vacation package for observant Jews priced at up to $11,000 per person at the St. Regis resort near Laguna Beach, California. There, Cruz gave an impassioned speech about Israel over a breakfast of smoked salmon and matzo brei, and he gamely played along when one of Prime Passover’s other featured guests, a mentalist, made Cruz part of his act. “I guessed the name of his first girlfriend,” recalls the mentalist, Lior Suchard. “He was blown away.”
And then there is Paul Singer, the New York hedge-fund billionaire whose support in this presidential campaign may be even more coveted than Adelson’s. Although Singer is best known in political circles for his efforts to get Republicans to back gay marriage, Israel has taken on increasing importance for him in recent years. “He thinks Israel is under siege,” says one person close to Singer. The hedge funder’s net worth, at $2.1 billion, pales in comparison with Adelson’s, but Singer has one thing Adelson lacks: lots of friends — very rich friends. A Republican operative explains, “He’s able to bring other major donors along with him who say to themselves, ‘Singer’s got this whole thing worked out. I trust him.’ ”
So, at the same time that the Adelson primary glitzily plays out in Las Vegas, the Singer primary is being held, more discreetly, in Manhattan. He has already hosted a series of private, off-the-record lunches at venues like the Metropolitan Club — attended by 50 to 100 of his wealthy and ideologically simpatico friends — for various Republican presidential candidates including Bush, Walker, Rubio, Chris Christie, and John Kasich. In fact, it was at one of Singer’s lunches that Bush made his remarks that his brother was his closest adviser on Israel.
Singer and Adelson are said to be personally friendly. Singer sits on the board of the RJC (although he doesn’t attend its Las Vegas confabs); when Adelson visits New York, he occasionally pays a visit to the offices of Singer’s hedge fund. They often support the same politicians. Like Adelson, Singer is said to be enamored of Rubio — who, along with Bush, is considered a favorite in the Singer primary — but there remains a gulf between them. Part of it is characterological. “Don’t forget, Paul Singer is a graduate of Harvard Law School,” says Elliott Abrams, the former State Department official who is friendly with both men. Unlike Adelson, Abrams says, Singer “is not a gunslinger.” Nor is he a fan of the spotlight. According to another Singer friend, the billionaire was unnerved when, after being in the news as a result of his gay-marriage advocacy, he was recognized by a fellow patron in a New York City pizza parlor, who thanked him for his efforts.
But the distance between Singer and Adelson is geographical as well. In New York, Singer is part of a community of megarich individuals who, in addition to donating to pro-Israel causes, also contribute to Juilliard and various cultural institutions. It’s a scene that’s a couple thousand miles — and a world away — from Adelson’s desert redoubt. “Sheldon’s just not part of a peer group,” says one person who knows both men. “He’s out in Vegas. I mean, who’s out there? Steve Wynn?”
In June, Adelson was joined at the Venetian by representatives of 50 American Jewish groups who’d been summoned to a two-day secret confab to present their ideas to Adelson, and a host of other wealthy Jewish donors, about how to combat the anti-Israel Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement on American college campuses. Adelson dubbed his effort 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.
American Jewish groups have been working on campus-based anti-BDS efforts for several years, but Adelson’s interest is relatively new. According to one person who attended the Campus Maccabees event, Adelson’s interest is also intensely personal. This fall, Sheldon and Miriam’s son is heading off to college. “They’re completely panicked,” this person says. “They’ve protected this kid from toxic anti-Israel stuff, so they 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.” The problem, argue some anti-BDS activists, is that Adelson’s approach will actually set back the anti-BDS cause. “You need a big tent,” says one activist who attended the conference, “and limiting it to students who want to call themselves Maccabees and who are being sponsored by a controversial right-wing billionaire is not going to be a successful approach on college campuses.”
Still, that view didn’t prevent several speakers at the conference from comparing Adelson to Judah Maccabee. When it was the modern-day Judah’s turn to address the gathering, shortly before he and Boteach hosted a Shabbat dinner, he walked onstage with the aid of a cane. He tried to sit down on a stool behind the podium, but the stool was too short for him to reach the microphone, so Adelson stood and spoke for several minutes, appearing increasingly uncomfortable, until an aide brought him a taller stool. At one point, according to one attendee, Adelson told the gathering, “Finally, donors are going to have a voice in how Jewish organizations are run.” The line was the subject of much discussion and ridicule among the attendees afterward. “The No. 1 complaint you hear from people in the Jewish world is that donors are too involved in the organizations,” says one attendee. “The reason organizations exist is to hire professionals to do the work donors can’t do themselves. You’d think that Sheldon, one of the great philanthropists in human history, would know that.” During Adelson’s speech, however, the line was greeted with silence. Everyone was too polite to laugh.