Playing to win: Sheldon Adelsgn's newspaper, Israel Hayom, changed the course of Israeli politics and moved the country further right. Will the hard-charging casino magnate have the same luck in Las Vegas?

Author:Pippert, Wesley G.
 
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This story follows "The Adelson Effect," which focused on Adelson's growing influence on the media scene in Israel and ran in Moment's May/June 2014 issue. That article, reported by Robert Slater and Wesley G. Pippert, was a finalist for a 2015 Mirror Award for Excellence in the Media Industry, from the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University.

IN 2012, SHELDON ADELSON granted a rare interview to Politico's Mike Allen at the owner suite in the Venetian, his casino and hotel in Las Vegas. Over a dinner of salmon and mixed vegetables, Adelson told the reporter that he didn't believe one person should influence an election. "So, I suppose you'll ask me, 'How come I'm doing it?' Because other single people influence elections." Me continued: "I suppose you could say that I live on Vince Lombardi's belief: 'Winning isn't everything, it's the only thing.' So, I do whatever it takes, as long as it's moral, ethical, principled, legal."

The 83-year-old billionaire and his wife Miriam, 71, have especially strong opinions about winning when it comes to Israel. Both have deeply felt emotional ties to the country: Adelson often speaks of his father, a struggling Lithuanian Jewish immigrant to the United States, who was a fervent believer in the need for a Jewish state. Arthur Adelson never made it to Israel, so on Adelson's first visit, he wore his late father's loafers, leaving their prints on the Jewish homeland. Miriam, a physician who takes an active role in the couple's business and philanthropic pursuits, was born in Israel to a mother who survived the Holocaust.

Upon their 1991 marriage, the second for both, their passions for Israel intertwined, and they emerged as an indefatigable power couple, self-styled protectors of the Jewish state armed with Adelson's casino fortune. Willing to put their money where their beliefs were, they began pouring audacious sums into projects they believed would strengthen Israel. This includes a wide range of causes from the popular Birthright program--designed to draw young American Jews closer to Israel and their Jewish identity--to building up settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. The Adelsons are among the largest donors in history to the Republican Party, but when it comes to Israel, they are further to the right than most Republicans. They've visibly pressured President Donald Trump to make good on his promise to move the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. More controversially, they oppose a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which they consider a security risk tantamount to suicide.

As anyone who has seen footage of the quadrennial Republican "Adelson primary" at the Venetian knows, the Adelsons often judge American presidential candidates based on who they think will be best for Israel. In the 2012 American presidential season, they showered money on Newt Gingrich, whose campaign nonetheless floundered. In 2016, they looked for like-minded candidates who they thought had a better chance of winning (including senators Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz), and ultimately donated $82.5 million to Republican coffers.

In Israel, too, the Adelsons find ways to invest in politicians, and by far their biggest success story to date has been Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, with whom Adelson became close around 1990. The bond strengthened as Netanyahu became Likud leader in 1993 and then served as Israel's youngest prime minister from 1996 to 1999. When Netanyahu began jockeying for a return to power in 2005, Adelson was there for him. He reportedly thought Netanyahu would be tougher on the Palestinians and less likely to embrace a two-state solution than then-Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.

Prevented by Israel's strict campaign finance laws from donating significant funds to Netanyahu's campaign, Adelson addressed Netanyahu's complaint that Israel's media were mistreating him by launching a new daily newspaper, Israel Hayom, in 2007, says Rafi Mann, previously a senior editor at Maariv and a founding editor of the Israeli media watchdog The Seventh Eye. Ten years ago, on July 30, a small army of men and women wearing red jumpsuits and caps began handing out the free tabloid at coffee shops, gas and bus stations, apartment complexes, supermarkets, hospitals and campuses.

"Free" was not just a come-on. Israel Hayom stayed free, with Adelson reportedly spending $200 million so far to cover its losses--peanuts for a man Forbes estimates is worth $35 billion. Given its price, high quality production and well-paid professional staff, Israel Hayom quickly became popular, undermining the economic viability of Israel's other dailies, which depend on subscription, newsstand and advertising revenue to survive.

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Today, 40 percent of Israel's newspaper readers, about 340,000 people, read Israel Hayom. It has five percent more readers than the once dominant Yediot Aharonot, according to a 2016 Target Group Index survey. Yediot Abaronot's Friday weekend edition, with 600,000 readers, still has an edge over Israel Hayom's 550,000. But Adelson delivered a double blow to Yediot Aharonot. Besides taking a hit in subscription revenue, the paper had to cut its ad rates to compete with Israel Hayom's heavily subsidized ones. The fallout was even worse for two other popular dailies: Maariv is but a shadow of its former self, and the religious Zionist Makor Rishon was purchased by Adelson in 2014.

But Israel Hayom's biggest impact has been political, since the affected papers were among those that Netanyahu considered his "enemies." The paper, led by editor and Netanyahu confidant Amos Regev, quickly earned the sobriquet Bibiton--a combination of Bibi (Netanyahu's nickname) and iton ("newspaper" in Hebrew). Mann says that Israel Hayom strengthened Netanyahu's hand in a small country where newspapers, especially the thick weekend editions, still carry a lot of weight in shaping public opinion. "It has presented and framed Netanyahu's activities and positions in a very positive way, refuted the claims of his critics and overexposed the failings of his opponents--in politics and in the media," he says. The paper, he says, helped Netanyahu win the 2009 election and eventually led to the erosion of the center-left bloc in Israel, moving discourse rightward, especially on the settlement issue.

Adelson, who did not respond to an interview request, has been quoted saving that he is proud to provide Israelis with an alternative to a left-leaning press, but over the last decade the newspaper's pro-Netanyahu message has infuriated Israeli politicians on both the left and the right. "It is important to note that Israel Hayom is not a newspaper that promotes the right-wing ideological agenda, but rather it has served the personal interests of Netanyahu," says Hebrew University economist Momi Dahan, co-author of an Israel Democracy Institute study on election financing and corruption. "Sheldon Adelson has provided unlimited resources to Benjamin Netanyahu by financing a newspaper that has been under the direct influence of benjamin Netanyahu," a de facto violation of campaign finance laws, he says. Efforts to pass legislation to force Israel Hayom to charge for papers and other measures to curtail its power have failed. The paper was one of...

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