Sheldon Adelson is not the problem

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The world loves a villain. At age 81, with beady eyes, mangy hair, and a monster ego, casino magnate Sheldon Adelson easily fits the role.

For many, Adelson personifies the evil force of money taking over our politics. Moreover, his politics are bad. He supports Republicans. He supports Netanyahu. He’s the Rupert Murdoch of Israel. He expects obeisance to his desired policy; he makes politicians dance the Hora to get at his money. His wife drops purses on Democrats in Congress.

Adelson and his wife were in the gallery during the Netanyahu speech to Congress on March 3, 2015. The sighting provoked several op-eds pointing the finger at Adelson as exerting undue influence over our politics.

Take, for example, Bill Moyers and Michael Winship in Salon, on March 7: “Everything you need to know about Benjamin Netanyahu’s address to Congress Tuesday was the presence in the visitor’s gallery of that man [Sheldon Adelson]. We are hostage to his fortune,” they say.

….Not only is this casino mogul the unofficial head of the Republican Party in America (“he with the gold rules”), he is the uncrowned King of Israel — David with a printing press and checkbook instead of a slingshot and a stone. All of this came to the fore in Netanyahu’s speech on Tuesday: the US cannot determine its own policy in the Middle East and the majority in Congress are under the thumb of a foreign power.

Like a King Midas colossus, Sheldon Adelson bestrides the cause of war and peace in the most volatile region of the world. And this is the man who — at Yeshiva University in New York in 2013 — denounced President Obama’s diplomatic efforts with Iran and proposed instead that the United States drop an atomic bomb in the Iranian desert and then declare: “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.”

Tyler Durden, over at Zero Hedge, picked up the ball on March 9 and ran with it:

This whole thing [about dropping atomic bombs on Teheran] takes on a much greater level of significance given Adelson’s near total control of the U.S. Republican party, as well as his control over Israel’s Prime Minister. The man is not only the 8th richest man in the world, he’s also a menace to civilized society, and people need to start paying a lot more attention to him.

Finally, a few days ago, Tom Friedman chimed in in the New York Times:

[W]hen it came to showering that cash on Republican presidential hopefuls and right-wing PACs trying to defeat President Obama (reportedly $150 million in 2012), and on keeping Netanyahu and his Likud party in office, no single billionaire-donor is more influential than Sheldon. No matter what his agenda, 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. ….

When money in politics gets this big, when it can make elected officials bow and scrape in two different countries at the same time, it is troubling. I’m sure Adelson cares deeply about Israel, but he lacks any sense of limits in how he exercises his extraordinary financial power — power he is using to simultaneously push Israel and America toward eliminating any two-state solution between Israelis and Palestinians, toward defunding the Palestinian Authority and toward a confrontation with Iran, not a diplomatic solution. People need to know this.

But is this true?  Are we hostages to Adelson’s money? Does he control near total control over the U.S. Republican party? Is Congressional support for Israel the result of Adelson’s money? Is the rightward drift of Israeli and U.S. politics due to Adelson?  I don’t think so.

U.S. Support for Israel

Israel has enjoyed overwhelming American support from the outset. Walter Russell Mead notes in a 2008 Foreign Policy Magazine essay that whereas Presidential advisers are often ambivalent, public support has been consistent and widespread. “In the United States,” says Mead, “a pro-Israel foreign policy does not represent the triumph of a small lobby over the public will. It represents the power of public opinion to shape foreign policy in the face of concerns by foreign policy professionals.”

Mead points out that this popular American support for Zionism goes all the way back to the founding fathers.  Some of it is was based on biblical prophetic literalism (e.g. John Adams); some of it came from a vision of the United States as an embodiment of God’s building a better world through human progress, and that the United States was thus intimately linked with the ancient Promised Land; and some of it, throughout the 19th century, came from liberal secular Zionists who associated the restoration of a Jewish state with Jerusalem as its capital with the general march of human progress.

The writer Herman Melville expressed this view: “We Americans are the peculiar, chosen people — the Israel of our time; we bear the ark of the liberties of the world.” From the time of the Puritans to the present day, preachers, thinkers, and politicians in the United States — secular as well as religious, liberal as well as conservative — have seen the Americans as a chosen people, bound together less by ties of blood than by a set of beliefs and a destiny. Americans have believed that God (or history) has brought them into a new land and made them great and rich and that their continued prosperity depends on their fulfilling their obligations toward God or the principles that have blessed them so far. Ignore these principles — turn toward the golden calf — and the scourge will come.

The United States and Israel are both settler states. Over the history of the U.S. we have looked to God’s biblical promise of Canaan to the Jews as a mere prelude to our own settlement of the new land and conquest of its people.  Other factors have contributed to the close bond, such as the tremendous shock of the Holocaust, and American Jewish support of the civil rights struggle.

After 1967 there has been a rightward drift in support for Israel in this country. On the left, support has waned due to the occupation and weakening support among Blacks, and on the right, support has strengthened with a growing political activism within the Evangelical Christian Church and a strong adverse reaction to Islamist movements throughout the Middle East among populist-nationalist (“Jacksonian”) voters.

Many Jacksonians formed negative views of the Arabs during the Cold War. The Palestinians and the Arab states, they noted, tended to side with the Soviet Union and the Nonaligned Movement against the United States. The Egyptians responded to support from the United States in the 1956 Suez crisis by turning to the Soviets for arms and support, and Soviet weapons and Soviet experts helped Arab armies prepare for wars against Israel….[As] events in the Middle East have unfolded since 1967, they have become more sympathetic to Israel even as many non-Jacksonian observers in the United States — and many more people in the rest of the world — have become less so.

The Six-Day War reignited the interest of prophetic Zionists in Israel and deepened the perceived connections between Israel and the United States for many Jacksonians. After the Cold War, the Jacksonians found that the United States’ opponents in the region, such as Iraq and Iran, were the most vociferous enemies of Israel as well.

Jacksonians admire victory, and total victory is the best kind. The sweeping, overwhelming triumph of Israeli arms in 1967 against numerically superior foes (sic) from three different countries caught the imaginations of Jacksonians — especially at a time when the United States’ poor performance in Vietnam had made many of them pessimistic about their own country’s future. Since then, some of the same actions that have hurt Israel’s image in most of the world — such as ostensibly disproportionate responses to Palestinian terrorism — have increased its support among Jacksonians.

Mead concludes:

One thing, at least, seems clear. In the future, as in the past, U.S. policy toward the Middle East will, for better or worse, continue to be shaped primarily by the will of the American majority, not the machinations of any minority, however wealthy or engaged in the political process some of its members may be.

And this holds true for Sheldon Adelson and his money as well. The U.S. has been supporting Israel since long before Sheldon Adelson made his first billion. Congressional support for Israel is not the result of his money, it’s due to the will of the American majority.

Rightward Drift in Politics

Just like Adelson and his money are not the cause of Congressional support for Israel, Adelson and his money are not the cause of the rightward drift in politics, not in the U.S., and not in Israel. In the U.S. the shift in favor of Republicans over the past 30 years has been primarily due to the fact that Southern Democrats switched parties after the Civil Rights movement, they are now Southern Republicans, and the fact that there are structural imbalances in our Constitution that strongly favor less populated conservative rural regions over densely urban areas. In Israel, a rightward drift in politics is due in part to the First and Second Intifadas, the occupation, ongoing hostile relations with neighbors, and the influx of large numbers of immigrants from the Soviet Union.  This shift happened long before Adelson built his first casino.  The two-state solution has been a corpse since 2000. Netanyahu killed it long before Adelson became a large donor.

Had Adelson gone broke in 2008, our Congress would be no more functional today. Politics in the U.S. and Israel would be no different. The two-state solution would still be dead.

Just Another Politically Active Rich Guy

Just like it’s mean-spirited and beside the point to demonize Donald Trump because of his mystery hair (although it’s fun to do so) it’s misguided to demonize Adelson because of his looks, his lack of education, or the fact that he spends some of his money on political causes (although it’s easy to do so).

Fact is, Adelson is an American success story.  He came from humble background and he built, and re-built his empire from the ground up. He has swagger, but he also has a twinkle. He has a strong and accomplished woman for his second wife. You’ve got to admire that.

Adelson co-developed COMDEX, the premier computer trade show during the 1980’s and ’90s. He earned his first $500 million when he sold this business in 1995.  At that time Adelson was 62 years old and he could have retired and enjoyed a very nice lifestyle. But he didn’t. He took this money, and his share of the Sands hotel which he acquired in 1988, and built his Casino empire in Las Vegas, Macao, Pennsylvania, and Singapore. By 2008 his net worth was ~$34 billion. He lost $15 billion of this during the crash, but he’s back to nearly $30 billion now.

He has a reputation for being tough.  And Steve Wynn, the casino competitor on the Las Vegas strip, says: “Sheldon is a man who harbors a lot of animosity toward a lot of people, [a]nd when Sheldon is angry, he gets nasty.” That stands to reason, but it’s not what we are thinking of when we dub him a political villain.

The Adelson foundation gives a lot of money for medical research; he has funded school construction in Las Vegas; he supports Republican candidates for office; and he supports a lot of charitable causes in Israel [his wife was born in Haifa and received her MD degree from Tel Aviv University]; he has contributed $140 million to the Birthright Israel foundation, which finances Jewish youth trips to Israel; he has given large donations to Yad Vashem, the Israel Holocaust Museum. In the 2012 election cycle, Adelson is reported to have given at least $98 million to get Republicans elected.

We might choose to spend this money differently, but there is nothing villainous about Adelson being engaged in the political process and with charitable causes.
It’s silly to suggest that Adelson’s extremely naive and impolitic statement about threatening Iran by dropping a nuclear bomb in the desert is in any way dictating or influencing either Israeli or American policy.  Netanyahu has been beating the drum on Iran and its nuclear ambitions since at least 1993. If Israel decides to go it alone and ultimately bomb Iran, which seems unlikely, it won’t be because of anything Adelson says or doesn’t say.
Large donor money is a problem in politics. But total political spending in the 2012 election cycle was $7 billion, according to the FEC.  The $100-$150 million that Adelson contributed, therefore, represents less than 2 percent of the total spending.  Or, to put it another way, Adelson’s entire contribution can be neutralized with 300,000 $50 political donations–that’s a $50 donation from .002 of voters who actually cast a ballot.
Big money in politics is a problem, but lack of participation is a bigger problem. The political orientation of our 100 wealthiest citizens is the least of our problems.
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“Congressional support for Israel is not the result of his money, it’s due to the will of the American majority.” “Big money in politics is a problem, but lack of participation is a bigger problem. The political orientation of our 100 wealthiest citizens is the least of our problems “.… Read more »

Adelson ain’t the problem. He has money. The problem is Israel DOESN’T have the money and has never had the money to be able to afford to adhere to the law once broken by having disowned its own citizens, exceeded its borders even as they were being proclaimed to the… Read more »

The most charitable thing I say say in response to the article is that yes, Adelson is not alone in his behavior. Wealthy people have a disproportionate amount of influence because they have so much money to buy political loyalty or lobby for legislation they want. Adelson is singled out… Read more »

Apparently, Uri Avneri’s overstated case about Sheldon Adelson right before Bibi’s congressional visit gave some liberal commentators, from Moyers to Friedman, a little courage to criticize the Israel Lobby obliquely by pointing out the influence of Adelson on Republicans. No specifics about the influence of major Zionist donors on Democrats,… Read more »

I think there is some truth to this post but it is overstated. The part that is true is that the US and Israel are both settler colonialist state and there is a cultural affinity there. Many Christians in the US are Zionists, and that part about Jacksonians who tend… Read more »