Israel Abuzz Over Whether Sheldon Adelson Is Ditching Netanyahu for a New Favorite

Right-wing leader Bennett was seated next to the Trump campaign's largest donor at a recent VIP dinner and is increasingly featuring in Israel Hayom

Naftali Bennett and Sheldon Adelson at the cornerstone laying for Ariel university's medical school, June 2017.
Michael Dameson

Israel is buzzing about a possible rift between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and one of his most controversial American patrons, Sheldon Adelson, the billionaire owner of Las Vegas Sands and the largest donor to Donald Trump’s presidential campaign.

There are growing signs of Adelson transferring his affections – and finances – to Education Minister Naftali Bennett, the head of the Habayit Hayehudi party and a right-wing thorn in Netanyahu’s side with aspirations to replace him as prime minister.

Israelis are wondering whether Adelson’s patronage might be enough to boost Bennett from his current fringe position at the head of a small party to become the next leader of Israel’s nationalist right – and whether Netanyahu can survive without the political and financial backing of the Boston-born casino mogul.

Adelson has poured some $200 million into Israel Hayom, the loss-making giveaway tabloid he founded in 2007 that is now Israel’s largest-circulation newspaper – and affectionately known as the Bibiton, or “Bibi-daily.” The paper’s role in Netanyahu’s 2009 election victory seemed so obvious his opponents called for an investigation into its funding under Israel’s election financing laws.

In March 2015, Adelson was in the gallery to watch Netanyahu deliver his speech to the U.S. Congress opposing the Iran nuclear deal, and he has been a frequent visitor to Netayahu’s home. But recently Adelson has been obliged to combine his Israel trips with less enjoyable pastimes.

This week he and his Israeli-born wife Miriam were questioned for several hours by the police investigating an alleged plot by Netanyahu to win favorable coverage from his media nemesis Arnon Mozes, publisher of the Yedioth Ahronoth daily. It was Adelson’s second visit to the headquarters of Israel’s fraud squad – not one of the billionaire’s usual haunts.

Sheldon Adelson and Naftali Bennett clinking glasses at the cornerstone laying for Ariel University's  medical school, June 2017.
Michael Dameson

The Adelsons reportedly told the police they were “angry” at the revelations that Netanyahu had offered to pass legislation weakening Israel Hayom in return for cooperation from Mozes. Their dissatisfaction has been written all over the pages of their newspaper ever since the appointment of a new editor, Boaz Bismuth, earlier this year. According to the Walla website, the paper’s coverage of Netanyahu plummeted immediately after Bismuth’s appointment – to 190 mentions in six weeks from 542 in the same period the previous year. Coverage of Sara Netanyahu’s activities fell to a meager 11 stories from 119.

Adelson has always been further to the right than Netanyahu and publicly criticized his 2009 Bar-Ilan University speech endorsing Israel’s official policy of a two-state solution with the Palestinians. But Adelson is a pragmatist and has staked his huge wealth on the sure bet that Netanyahu has few credible rivals. Until now.

Mitchell Barak, a pollster who was an aide to Netanyahu before he became prime minister, said Adelson had good reason to feel betrayed by the prime minister.

“Even speaking to Mozes was a betrayal of Adelson’s trust, someone who has put almost $200 million into getting him elected and keeping him in power,” Barak said. “It’s immeasurable what Adelson has done for Bibi. It’s a huge amount of money.”

Netanyahu’s shrinking profile in Israel Hayom has been matched by the rise of two potential rivals on its pages: Bennett and Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid.

On Wednesday, Adelson was the guest of honor at a ceremony to dedicate a new $20 million health faculty at Ariel University, the West Bank institution championed by Bennett as education minister. Both Bennett and Netanyahu heaped praise on the Adelsons in their speeches, but it was Bennett who sat next to the mega-donor at the VIP dinner and during the ceremony, while the prime minister was cast adrift in what some observers saw as a calculated snub.

Naftali Bennett, center, shakes hands with Miriam Adelson, with Sheldon Adelson sitting at right at the cornerstone laying for Ariel University's medical school, June 2017.
Michael Dameson

As Bennett returned home from the ceremony, he penned a quick update on his Facebook page summing up the day’s events. He mentioned the Ariel dedication and pointedly referred to the bitter dispute between Netanyahu and Diaspora leaders over the government’s decision to freeze a plan to create a pluralistic prayer space at the Western Wall.

“We are in a deep crisis with our greatest supporters. The penny hasn’t yet dropped here in Israel. I don’t recall a situation like this. We must act urgently and wisely to heal the rift,” Bennett wrote without mentioning Netanyahu by name but clearly hinting that the prime minister was fast losing his luster with prominent Diaspora supporters like Adelson.

Still, Dan Margalit, the prominent Israeli journalist recently fired from Israel Hayom, said he doubted Bennett’s dream of Adelson’s patronage would be fulfilled.

“I am not among those who think that he will transfer his support from Netanyahu to Naftali Bennett,” Margalit wrote on Facebook. “Perhaps there will be some political flirtation and close cooperation between them, but not more.”

Adelson may “turn a cold shoulder and hold his nose” while awaiting the outcome of the police investigations into Netanyahu’s affairs, “but he will not abandon Netanyahu, even if they are no longer friends.”

Mitchell Barak agreed. “I don’t see Bennett happening,” he said. “He heads a small, sectarian party that will always have his hands tied by a commitment to the settlements. I don’t think Bennett is the guy. Adelson needs someone who is capable of leading the Likud party.”

But Barak noted that Adelson and Bennett could “probably compare notes” since they were both close to Netanyahu and have now fallen out with him – a common pattern. “Every one of Netanyahu’s rivals today are people who once worked with him,” Barak said.