Mr. Adelson Goes to Israel

Things are returning to normal again in Israel after the 60th anniversary celebrations, the Bush visit, and the Peres presidential conference last week.  The main agenda items now are the Olmert investigation and the cease-fire or escalation vis a vis Gaza.  But the Presidential conference hosted by Shimon Peres has left behind something of a controversy and bitter taste.  Shimon Peres is obviously a remarkable and unique character, still batting for Israel, managing to pull off a huge event graced by dignitaries from a variety of fields of activity and from around the world.  Yet the gap between the uplifting and visionary words of Shimon Peres and the actions he has supported and continues to support remains as gaping a chasm as ever.  Peres is in many ways the real father of the settlements, as Akiva Eldar and Idith Zertal recount in painful detail in their book Lords of the Land.  And true to form, Shimon Peres “will be the guest of honor at next month’s 30th anniversary ceremony for the West Bank settlement of Ariel.”

So it should hardly come as a surprise that the presidential conference hosted by Peres was in many ways hosted by Sheldon Adelson, the notorious casino developer, financer of Freedom’s Watch, and a host of other hard-right causes.  Sheldon bought his seat at the top table at the conference, he bought himself the role of presenting the keynote address, and if it is up to him he will be buying the Israeli Prime Minister’s residence for a certain Mr. Netanyahu in the near future.

Now that’s how I look at it, and I think that’s how it is, but it was surprising to me and really rather refreshing to find that the most respected journalist in the Israeli media—Nahum Barnea of Yediot Ahronot—not only saw things in similar terms but also had the courage to dedicate part of his weekly column to lambasting the Adelson-Peres shindig, and what a sad commentary it was on contemporary Israel.  Here is a translation of the bulk of that column by Nahum Barnea from last Friday—it is remarkably honest and gutsy:

(DL translation)

When Sheldon Adelson gave his speech on the podium of the International Convention Center two days ago, I looked at Shimon Peres. I was happy for him. The impressive, sparkling conference that he convened will warm his heart…Many important, highly-respected people. An excellent organization. Well done.

As a citizen of the country, I was less happy. I saw a gambling tycoon from Las Vegas who bought my country’s birthday with three million dollars. I thought with sorrow: Is the country worth so very little? Were the champagne, wine and sushi that were given out for free in the lobby—breaking convention for such events—worth the humiliation?

Adelson is a Jew who loves Israel. Like some other Jews who live at a safe distance from here, his love is great, passionate, smothering. It is important to him that he influences the policies, decisions and compositions of Israeli governments. He is not alone in this, either: even back in the days of Baron Rothschild, wealthy Jews from the Diaspora felt that this country lay in their pocket, alongside their wallet. Regrettably, in the latest generation, we are being led by politicians who look at these millionaires with calf’s eyes.

Such deference to the wallets of other people—that is the common denominator of Rabin and Peres, Netanyahu, Barak and Olmert…

Adelson is like the others, and yet different. He has the gift of authority and the bluntness of someone who made a lot of money quickly. He does not ask; he commands.

“He talks to me as though I were his property,” the director of an important Jewish-American organization, one of the guests at the conference, told me. I heard similar complaints from others—both Israelis and Americans— about Adelson. Not long ago, the mayor of a large city received word that he had to meet Adelson immediately. He acceded, of course—the man is a big donor. When they met, Adelson ordered him to tell the municipal inspectors to leave the employees of his business (who were violating municipal law) alone.

There is a story about an anti-Arab propaganda film that Adelson had heard of. When he telephoned the director-general of a Jewish organization, asking him to buy and distribute the film, the man told him that the film was distorted, and that no one would believe it. Adelson responded—“so edit it”. When the man countered that film could not be edited, Adelson replied that he would buy the film at his expense, but that the other man would then distribute it.  “He would like all the Arabs to disappear,” another activist for a Jewish organization told me. “It seems that he thinks that the Arabs are chips to be gambled with.”

Several months ago, Adelson contacted another Jewish-American millionaire and asked him to donate a large sum of money for a campaign that he was organizing against the current Israeli government. The man politely refused. “You know what”, Adelson told him, “do not donate, just sign”. When the man refused again, Adelson accused him of funding anti-Israel research. “I do not know what you mean”, the man answered. “When my man in charge of these things is in Las Vegas, he will come to you and he’ll look into the matter.”

The ensuing meeting at Adelson’s office, in the Venetian hotel-casino, was a stormy one. Adelson took out a written list of accusations, many of them childish. “You hosted (PA prime minister) Salam Fayyad,” he said. “He is a terrorist with blood on his hands. He is one of the founders of Fatah.”  “Salam Fayyad was never involved in terrorism,” said the interlocutor. “He is not a member of Fatah. Where did you get these accusations from?”

Adelson responded that he had gotten them from Steve Emerson (an American Jew who often analyzes terrorism). “You work with Olmert’s government,” he added. “This is an illegitimate government. It must be thrown out.”  “I thought”, said the man, “that Olmert is your friend.”

And, indeed, they were friends. Such good friends that Olmert wrote him [Adelson] a letter, asking him to buy mini-bars for his hotels from a company that Talansky represented.

Adelson is convinced that Netanyahu, not Olmert, must be prime minister of Israel. In order to advance this idea, Adelson established an anti-Olmert newspaper devoted to praising Netanyahu. Allegedly, this investment is the largest election gift ever given to Israel. I do not claim this. Firstly, it is a legitimate legal gift. Secondly, when Netanyahu is elected prime minister, he will have to act within the constraints of the State of Israel, not take dictates of a patron from Las Vegas.

Adelson, surrounded by guards, was king of the conference. He sat in the first row, with Shimon Peres between him and Olmert. He put his hand out to Olmert. Olmert shook it with a sour face. They did not exchange a single word.