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Sheldon Adelson: The American behind Israel's right wing

Sheldon Adelson, a Gingrich backer, has a big wallet and is funding Israel's right-wing media.

country, but some expect there will be resignations from within the prime minister's office.

To entertain the notion of how big a player the Israel Hayom is in the diminutive and struggling Israeli media market, the mere question of where Israel Hayom is printed is a matter of life or death for several other daily newspapers. Israel HaYom is now printed at the presses owned by the liberal, intellectual and highly regarded Ha’aretz, ideologically Israel Hayom’s antagonist.

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The owner of a rival paper, the popular, mass distribution daily Ma’ariv, is known to be vying for the printing contract, which is worth about 100 million shekels, or about $27 million. Whatever Adelson decides could determine, at the twitch of his wrist, the fate of either of these established, traditional national papers.

Not the least of the issues that create unease among wide swathes of Israelis is the fact that Adelson, a controversial and enigmatic whale that has taken virtual residence in the local media pond, is a foreigner residing abroad. He has never pretended to be an Israeli. But whatever decision he makes, in the words of Ma’ariv columnist and Channel 10 analyst Ofer Shelah, “is not a decision for which he will pay any price. We will. Yet the future of pluralism in the Israeli media market may reside in his hands.”

Mordechai Kremnitzer, a professor of law at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and an expert on the media, points out two positive aspects of Adelson’s emergence on the Israeli scene.

“After many years in which the Israeli right wing claimed it was discriminated against by what was perceived as a generally left-wing media, and after many years in which this was a real perception held by many Israelis, now it is very difficult to make that case. Israel Hayom has the largest readership in the nation, and it is without question a right-wing operation.”

Secondly, in Israel’s very small and concentrated media market, with very few published papers, “the simple addition of another one is a positive thing.”

“The problem,” he said, however, “is that because the paper is distributed for free, the pressure this puts on other papers — that are already struggling to survive — is huge. This could even cause the collapse of another newspaper or papers, and if that happens, it should be viewed with real concern. It would be very negative, principally because it would not be the result of free competition among outlets, but it would simply be a consequence of the huge amount of money Adelson has at his disposal.”

An additional and related concern, Kremnitzer said, is the influence a foreign citizen can acquire on the free market of opinions in Israel.

“And even more worrisome than that is the question of the independence of the prime minister’s judgment when he becomes dependent on a person who is not an Israeli citizen and on a source of funds that is foreign,” he said.

No Israeli law restricts foreign ownership of media outlets, and Adelson’s activities are not challenged even when they are called into question for influencing Israel’s democracy.

“In my opinion, everything Sheldon Adelson has done is completely legal and legitimate,” said Moshe Negbi, a legal analyst for the Voice of Israel radio and a professor of communications at Hebrew University. “I’m sure Sheldon Adelson is not operating for any personal advantage. He does not personally need Netanyahu. He’s not advancing his own interests. I think he believes with his whole heart that Netanyahu is the best medicine for all of Israel’s problems. He has very right-wing views in many areas, and it is his right. In addition, he is willing to spend his own money to advance his ideas and his ideology.”

“It is part of his freedom of expression to use his money to advance his opinions. It’s the same as Amos Shocken, [the owner of Ha’aretz] who I admire greatly, who is willing to lose a lot of money to advance his point of view,” Negbi added.

Negbi’s concern lies with the “inability of the capitalist, democratic system to find the tools to regulate censorship that is brought on by business people who deal in media. There is no legal way to say to a person with money how he can manage his own property.”

“A generation ago, the concern was with governments’ attempts to control opinion. Now, the person who controls such a popular paper has tremendous power over what the public hears and does not hear, and therefore over the public’s political opinions."

The issue is worldwide, but Israel’s case, according to Negbi, is particularly extreme due to its size. Israel’s total population is 7.5 million people, about the population of northern California’s Bay Area.

Despite the legal propriety of his actions, Adelson, who is accustomed to operating with a very wide berth, occasionally skirts the customs and ethics of Israel’s media world in a manner that raises eyebrows, or sometimes, causes fury.

The latest revelations made by Channel 10, a struggling commercial network known for a bold and authoritative investigative style, are only the latest in a series of skirmishes that threaten his reputation in Israel.

Last September its news division broadcast a critical but unchallenged profile of Adelson’s global casino operations. In reaction, Adelson threatened to sue. Both Channel 10’s news director and its legal counsel examined the claim and determined that no apology was due. But Channel 10 shareholder Ronald Lauder, another conservative American Republican and a friend of Adelson, thought otherwise and ordered that an apology be extended.

When the apology was issued on the main news broadcast last week, outrage ensued, including the resignation of two senior Channel 10 executives.

“This is exactly the crux of the matter,” Shelah, the columnist, said. “The media is at its knees and apologizing for something its professional authorities determined required no apology because they depend on the ongoing financial stream from someone who is a non-resident of the state. In this case, two of them.”

“That two people live in the US and have a relationship does not bother me. And Adelson was just normal in demanding an apology he did not deserve. But the problem was Lauder, who forced this behavior on Channel 10,” he added.

Lauder, of the Lauder cosmetics fortune and a former ambassador to Austria, is also president of the World Jewish Congress and is, like Adelson, close to Netanyahu. In 2011 alone, he pumped an estimated $16 million into Channel 10 to keep it operational.

The realization that in a moment of pique Adelson was able to rock Israel’s entire media world and possibly impact upon a government decision regarding debt relief for Channel 10 caused a nationwide shudder and reconsideration of his influence.

The latest revelations are sure to underscore the concern, expressed by Kremnitzer, the law professor, that Adelson may influence day to day decisions in the prime minister’s office.

"If Channel 10 were obliged to apologize for a broadcast not due to proper procedure like the correction of a mistaken pronouncement, this is clearly a grave abuse of the power of influence. This is what I mean when I say ‘negative and dangerous,’” he said.

The scandals have caused much worried flippancy in Israel about the political Kabuki theater Adeslon may have been dreaming up this winter, in which Gingrich and Netanyahu, both his protégés, could have a run at running a new US-Israel relationship.

“We are a very little country. And into this crucible Sheldon Adelson arrives, with a legitimate motivation. He sees a leftist liberal media and says, ‘I will establish a right-wing conservative balance,’ you know — fair and balanced — and balance out the media market. It’s all well, except for the problem that invariably arises when someone who literally has no budget limits is willing to invest his unending amount of money in Israel," Shelah said. "What do you do then?”