JERUSALEM — Las Vegas casino magnate Sheldon Adelson is mourned by official Israel as a powerful benefactor with direct access to U.S. presidents. Others on Wednesday saw a legacy tinged with controversy and touched by deadly conflict.
Adelson, who died on Tuesday at 87, was a prolific donor to causes that aligned with his hawkish vision of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He had a robust alliance with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and spent tens of millions of dollars supporting President Donald Trump’s election campaigns.
Trump’s election in 2016 opened a final, four-year window for Adelson’s clout with both leaders to produce policy that overwhelmingly favoured Israel over Palestinians. As the sun sets on the Trump presidency and Netanyahu fights for re-election, Adelson’s influence survives.
“With a new administration entering the White House and the Democrats controlling both houses of Congress, Israel must cut the umbilical cord connecting it to the conservative wing of the Republican party,” the liberal Haaretz daily wrote in an editorial Wednesday.
Adelson will be buried in Israel, where evidence of his philanthropy and unapologetic advocacy for the Jewish state seems ubiquitous. At Yad Vashem, Israel’s national memorial to millions of Jews murdered in the Holocaust. In the stream of Jewish young people on “heritage” trips to Israel as part of the popular Birthright program. Atop a building at the Adelson School of Entrepreneurship at a college north of Tel Aviv.
Adelson also underwrote a free daily newspaper that served as an unofficial mouthpiece for Netanyahu. Critics said the publication amounted to a multi-million dollar campaign contribution.
“That level of political funding gave him unprecedented access and influence over Israeli politics,” said Anshel Pfeffer, a Haaretz columnist, adding that Adelson would be remembered as a “corrosive” influence in both U.S. and Israeli politics.
But Adelson was more about policy than people. He occasionally differed with Netanyahu, said Yossi Beilin, a dovish former Israeli Cabinet minister who, despite deep ideological differences, worked with Adelson on the Birthright program. He noted that Adelson had some conflicts with Trump before his election, only to become a driving force in White House policy.
“He supported the policy of the right in Israel, whoever led this policy,” said Beilin. “And what he thought was right for Israel, it was usually very much to the right, with a capital R.”
Netanyahu, in one of a string of effusive eulogies by Israeli leaders, called Adelson “an incredible champion of the Jewish people, the Jewish state and the alliance between Israel and America.”
But others saw Adelson as a front-and-centre presence of a series of of inflammatory moves by Israel during the Trump administration.
Hanan Ashrawi, a former senior Palestinian official and peace negotiator, said Adelson’s support “enabled Israel and encouraged it to continue with its impunity and lawlessness, to expand settlements.”
“His impact on policy in the U.S. and Israel was enormous and extremely negative,” she said. He advanced “an agenda of (Israeli) expansion and total disregard for Palestinian rights.”
There was Adelson in 2018 watching from the front row as the president’s daughter, Ivanka Trump, Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin and other administration officials triumphantly dedicated a new U.S. Embassy in contested Jerusalem, underscoring the administration’s view of the city as the capital of Israel. Palestinians, who see Israeli-annexed east Jerusalem as their future capital, were infuriated.
On the same day, Israeli forces shot and killed dozens of Palestinians and wounded hundreds during mass protests along the Gaza border against the embassy’s move from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. It was by far the deadliest day of cross-border violence since a devastating 2014 war between Israel and Gaza’s Hamas rulers.
Nearly a year ago, Adelson was present at the White House when Trump unveiled a Mideast plan that endorsed Israel’s claims to Jerusalem and its ongoing settlement enterprise in the West Bank. Adelson’s philanthropy includes a new medical school in a West Bank settlement.
More recently, Adelson reportedly purchased the U.S. ambassador’s official residence near Tel Aviv for some $67 million in a move that was seen as helping prevent the embassy from relocating back to Tel Aviv after Trump leaves office.
And just weeks ago, Adelson provided a private plane for Jonathan Pollard, a former U.S. intelligence analyst who spent 30 years in prison for spying for Israel, to move to Israel. Pollard kissed the ground as Netanyahu welcomed him.
Adelson and his influence won’t be missed by the left.
IfNotNow, a liberal Jewish-American group critical of Israeli policies, went so far as to use a phrase traditionally used against the Jewish people’s worst enemies: “May his legacy be erased.”
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Laurie Kellman, The Associated Press