As a teenager growing up in Philadelphia, Benjamin Netanyahu became a naturalized U.S. citizen. Two decades later, upon his appointment as a senior Israeli diplomat, he was forced to give up his dual citizenship. Netanyahu has no vote in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. But had he still been eligible to vote, his preference remains a mystery.
Conversations with those close to him in recent years yield two versions as to the prime minister’s feelings. The official narrative is that “the prime minister is scrupulously not taking sides in this election.” Which seems to be true. Those who are less formal add that Netanyahu “simply doesn’t know who to support this time. He’s frightened of both candidates.”
For a man who prides himself on both knowing his own mind and being an expert on U.S. politics, that’s saying quite a lot.
Of course, Netanyahu is a Republican. His views on social matters, the economy and foreign policy have long been in sync with mainstream GOP thinking – or at least with what once passed for that. And while he has many contacts within the Democratic Party as well, his level of friendships and support among Republicans easily surpasses anything on the other side of the aisle.
But what kind of a Republican is Netanyahu, in an election cycle in which the very meaning of that definition has been so fundamentally challenged?
For want of a better description, Netanyahu is basically a Reaganite. His political coming of age was as a diplomat in New York in the 1980s – the Reagan years. And while the city itself resisted the charms of “the Gipper,” Netanyahu’s milieu was mainly from that part of Manhattan that saw Reagan as representing their interests and worldview.
Netanyahu may be a much more sophisticated and well-read politician than the two-term Republican president. But in many ways, he has modeled himself on Reagan: the use of direct television addresses and hard-hitting speeches, interspersed with jokes, to reach voters over the heads of the traditional media; the stark division of the world into good and evil forces; and the appeal to good old conservative values – even if, in their own private lives, neither of them were paragons of those virtues.
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And like many Reaganite Republicans, Netanyahu finds little to attract him to either candidate in this election.
Four years ago, things were much simpler. Mitt Romney was the classic Republican candidate and Netanyahu – convinced by a small group of pollsters that the majority of their colleagues were wrong and Romney would unseat President Barack Obama – felt comfortable welcoming him in Jerusalem as an old friend at the height of the campaign, doing everything but officially endorsing him.
If a Republican candidate in Romney’s mold was running this year, there would be no question where Netanyahu’s sympathies would lay. One of the banes of his long tenure as prime minister has been that he has never held office in Jerusalem at the same time as a Republican in Washington. His first term was during Bill Clinton’s administration, while his second, current stretch as premier, began shortly after Barack Obama took office in 2009. For Netanyahu, this is nothing less than a historic injustice. And now he has to contemplate the return of a Clinton to the White House.
Hillary Clinton has a good memory. She won’t forget the tense relationship between Netanyahu and her husband, who in 1999 sent his personal campaign team to help Ehud Barak win the election and oust Netanyahu. As Bibi remembers equally well. Mindful of the necessities of the campaign, Clinton has portrayed herself as Netanyahu’s friend, promising to invite him to the White House at the start of her term. But there was a double edge to this relationship: “I’ve known Bibi a long time and I have a very good relationship with him,” she told CNN last year. “In part because we can yell at each other, and we do. And I was often the designated yeller,” during her time as secretary of state in Obama’s first term. Netanyahu doesn’t like the sound of a president who boasts that she can yell at him.
But neither is he enamored by the prospect of President Donald Trump.
Similar to many other like-minded Republicans, including senior politicians he has been close to for years and conservative pundits he admires, Netanyahu sees Trump as someone who is beyond the pale. An unpredictable and unprincipled man who should not be entrusted with the nuclear codes. As one person close to the prime minister’s thinking on Israel-U.S. ties said last week, “Bibi is a risk-averse politician. He dislikes instability and Trump is the opposite of the kind of leader he wants to deal with.”
Veteran Israeli columnist Dan Margalit wrote on his Facebook page this week that he would bet on Netanyahu preferring Clinton, “because he knows Hillary and the limits of her willingness to use her power. Bibi also sees Trump’s short fuse and knows this is a man who can at once lose his senses and sweep away and ignore all the promises he has made to Israel.”
There is no clear indication that Netanyahu would choose Clinton over Trump. But the fact remains that while visits to Israel were mooted, and even scheduled, at least twice during the last year, Trump’s Boeing 757 never touched down at Ben-Gurion International Airport. And while no official reason was given for the cancellations, sources in Jerusalem maintain that it was Netanyahu who was not eager to be seen hosting Trump.
Some interpreted the meetings Netanyahu held in September with both candidates, while attending the UN General Assembly, as favoring Trump, who has more of a need than Clinton to be seen in the company of world leaders. But Netanyahu ensured that both meetings would be held under identical circumstances, at Clinton and Trump’s private homes in New York, and without any media presence. And on Sunday, when he opened the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, Netanyahu was at pains to emphasize that whoever was elected, he was “convinced Israel-U.S. relations, which are steady and strong, will not only stay that way, but will continue to strengthen.” He even made sure to use both the feminine form of “president” in Hebrew as well as the masculine.
“Netanyahu made it very clear that in no way whatsoever were we to show any Israeli preference for either of the candidates,” says an Israeli diplomat, stationed in the United States, who was recently briefed by the premier in his capacity as foreign minister. “That was the most important thing for him in the briefing.” But Israeli diplomats are not the only ones operating on Netanyahu’s behalf in America.
The best candidate for Israel
On May 13, the Washington Post’s opinion section published a column by one Sheldon G. Adelson, chairman and chief executive of Las Vegas Sands Corp., titled simply “I endorse Donald Trump for president.”
There was nothing particularly original or well written about the endorsement. Adelson only gave two reasons to vote for Trump: the fact that he was not a Democrat and therefore did not spell four more years of Obama’s policies; and that, as a CEO of real estate companies, Trump has the “executive experience” desirable in a president. Of course, though, originality or style were not why the Post published the piece.
Casino mogul Adelson got an op-ed because of his bank account. More accurately, for being the 22nd richest man in the world and 14th richest in the United States, with a net worth of over $25 billion (according to the 2016 Forbes list). He is one of a tiny handful of billionaires who have spent over $100 million on political Super PACs, claiming he is willing to invest this sum in just one election cycle to ensure that a Republican returns to the White House.
But of course Adelson is not just a Republican mega donor. He is also the number one sponsor of Netanyahu, the owner of a chunk of Israel’s media and one of the richest Jews in the world. Adelson has made it clear numerous times that his principle interest in politics and philanthropy is ensuring Israel’s security, according to his own hard-line, right-wing views. To this end he has become the largest individual donor of organizations such as Taglit-Birthright, which funds trips to Israel for young Jews in order to strengthen their personal commitment to the Jewish state, and to Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust remembrance center. It is why he has been Netanyahu’s supporter all these years.
Underscoring this, at the same time as his official Washington Post endorsement, Adelson sent a personal letter to his fellow Jewish Republicans, urging them put their weight behind Trump. Adelson insisted that having spoken to him at length, he was “specifically convinced [Trump] will be a tremendous president when it comes to the safety and security of Israel.”
The message was clear: Trump was the best candidate for Israel, and Adelson identifies Israel’s interests with those of Netanyahu.
The endorsement of Trump didn’t come as a surprise to Israelis who check out Adelson’s local newspaper, Israel Hayom, for an indication on what the prime minister and his billionaire friend are currently thinking.
Israel Hayom was founded by Adelson nine years ago, in order to give Netanyahu – who has been rather harshly treated by the Israeli media throughout his political career – a friendly newspaper. Under Israeli law, the total sum an individual can donate to a politician or party is very limited, and corporate donations are not allowed. Israel Hayom has been a convenient loophole, allowing Adelson to invest the sort of money he normally gives American politicians on Netanyahu’s behalf. It has no business model and carries far fewer ads than most daily newspapers. While the privately owned company does not publish financial reports, industry insiders estimate that Adelson must spend around $50 million annually on the large team of journalists and the printing and distribution operations.
Distributed for free, in hundreds of thousands of copies the length and breadth of the country, Israel Hayom not only clings slavishly to the line from Netanyahu’s office – praising him and his family to the heavens while smearing his political rivals, both on the left and the right. It has also provided an insight on the prevailing winds from Adelson’s office in the Venetian hotel in Las Vegas. After initially promoting Marco Rubio and then Ted Cruz, for months before Adelson’s endorsement Israel Hayom had been trumpeting Trump – including three glowing interviews with the candidate, more than any other foreign news organization received.
Early on in the election season, it looked like Adelson would back someone other than Trump. Hopeful Republican candidates made two pilgrimages: One to Israel, for a photo op with Netanyahu, a guided tour in a helicopter that was supposed to teach them all they needed to know about Israel’s strategic situation in an hour, and a visit to the Western Wall; the second to Adelson’s personal suite in Vegas for an audition, after which they hoped their commitment to Israel would be enough to gain the mega-donor’s backing. At that time, Trump was still pretending to finance his own campaign – though it has since transpired that he has put very little of his own money into the race – while at the same time billing the Republican Party and other donors for events taking place at his hotels.
In a typically blunt remark to a gathering of Republican Jewish donors last December – and in what would become a harbinger of a nastier tone, verging on the anti-Semitic, later in the campaign – Trump said: “You’re not going to support me because I don’t want your money. If I wanted your money, I think I’d have a damned good chance. You know the money I have turned down?”
Like many others in the party, Adelson thought that fielding a Hispanic candidate was a surefire way to victory. He at first favored the youthful Rubio, while his wife Miri – who is said to be even more right wing – was more partial to Cruz. Another early favorite of the couple was Sen. Lindsey Graham, who has tried to pass legislation against online gambling, which is also a cause close to the casino-owning Adelson’s heart. But as Graham, then Rubio and finally Cruz, all foundered in the primaries, Adelson was left with Trump. And while he hadn’t taken part in the Adelson auditions like the other candidates, Trump was eager to receive the imprimatur of Adelson’s endorsement – and, of course, his money.
But even after the endorsement, there were signs that Adelson was not totally sold on Trump. He didn’t rush to put money in the campaign’s coffers, instead mainly donating to other Republican candidates in Senate and Congress races.
According to various reports, until last week Adelson had donated between $7 million to $10 million, a mere pittance compared to previous campaigns. In August, The New York Times reported that in a meeting between them, Adelson – concerned with the tone of the campaign and the polls indicating a Clinton victory – urged Trump to “demonstrate humility.” Advice he hasn’t seemed to take on board. But for Adelson, the prospect of another term for a Democratic president seems too much to bear, and, according to Fox News, last week he gave $25 million to a Super PAC dedicated to funding anti-Clinton ads.
Unlike the Adelson-owned Las Vegas Review-Journal, which is the only U.S. newspaper to endorse Trump – unless you consider the National Enquirer or the neo-Nazi Daily Stormer newspapers – Israel Hayom has not formally endorsed Trump. There is no need for it to do so. The headlines and coverage have been so glowing, it would have been superfluous. And it doesn’t endorse Netanyahu either, for the same reason. Just one glaring example of the sort of coverage Trump receives in the freebie was seen last month, in its first edition after the leaked “Access Hollywood” tape in which Trump boasted of how he sexually assaults women was revealed: Israel Hayom’s foreign news editor, Boaz Bismuth, dedicated more space to the decades-old sexual allegations against Bill Clinton than to the latest Trump scandal.
Backing the wrong horses
For all his business acumen and rags-to-riches personal story, Adelson’s record of backing political winners is far from stellar. The return on the $200 million he has ploughed into various political campaigns over the past decade has been meager. Assuming the polls are right and Clinton wins this week, it will have been the third consecutive election in which his money failed to avert a Democratic victory.
Neither has he seen much success in the Republican primaries. Trump was neither his first, second or third choice, and in 2012 he backed Newt Gingrich to the hilt – his donations keeping him in the race long past the point when it was clear he had no chance (and damaging Romney’s presidential election prospects in the process).
In Israel, his record is much better, Netanyahu having won three consecutive elections since Adelson founded Israel Hayom in 2007. But have the hundreds of millions Adelson sunk into the daily really helped Netanyahu?
Israel Hayom doesn’t seem to have done a good job in convincing Israelis to vote for Netanyahu. Likud failed to receive more than a quarter of the vote in any of the elections since the paper was founded, and in 2009 it came second to Kadima. Netanyahu prevailed only thanks to the size of the right wing and religious blocs, his own coalition-building skills and the lack of a viable leader on the center-left.
He may be the longest-serving Likud prime minister, but all three previous ones – Menachem Begin, Yitzhak Shamir and Ariel Sharon – were all voted into office with much higher shares of the electorate.
Netanyahu is widely believed to have disbanded his government in late 2014, firing Finance Minister Yair Lapid and Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, because they and their parties’ MKs voted in favor of a law that would have forced Israel Hayom to charge money rather than being distributed for free. The law would have drastically curbed any influence the freebie may have enjoyed, as it was expected that few Israelis would actually have paid for it. The previous Knesset only had time to back the bill on its first reading, and by the time a new Knesset was sworn in, the governing coalition’s members were bound by an agreement not to vote for any media-related law against the prime minister’s wishes.
Netanyahu was willing to hold an election three years early rather than see Adelson’s contribution limited. But when the chips were down last year, with Netanyahu trailing badly in the polls a week before the March 17 election, he didn’t rely on Israel Hayom to boost his flagging popularity. Instead, he embarked on a blitz of interviews with the same mainstream media he accuses of being so implacably hostile toward him. Incontrovertible proof that even he had little trust in the free daily.
In a lengthy report on Netanyahu’s relations with the media, which appeared in Haaretz last weekend, writers Gidi Weitz and Nati Tucker quoted Netanyahu recently belittling Israel Hayom’s use to him. “Market share isn’t necessarily power,” he told journalists in a private meeting, adding, “Israel Hayom has little influence.”
He also claimed to have little power over Adelson himself – “Do you think I can tell that redhead what to do?” – and expressed concern that Adelson only supported his policy. “If I change it, he could, for example, support Bogie,” referring to the nickname of former Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon, now Netanyahu’s sworn enemy.
But while Netanyahu may indeed have reached the conclusion that Israel Hayom is not much of an asset anymore, there are those around him who believe he is also concerned that his own closeness to Adelson may be interpreted in Washington as tacit support for Trump.
Source of tension
Two months ago, when Netanyahu made his annual speech at the UN General Assembly in New York, there was a notable absence: In the prime seats in the gallery, reserved for each head of state’s personal guests, there was no sign of Sheldon and Miri Adelson. The couple has made sure of attending each and every major address by Netanyahu in the United States over the last decade, and many of those in Israel as well. Their no-show this year was explained by a family event back in Las Vegas. But more than one member of the prime minister’s entourage speculated that something was amiss in the close relationship.
One particular source of tension between the two appears to have been the $38-billion, 10-year memorandum of understanding concerning U.S. military aid to Israel, signed by Netanyahu’s representatives in September, just days before he traveled to New York.
While it was the largest American military aid agreement ever, Netanyahu’s critics in both countries claimed he could have landed an even better deal a year earlier, had he agreed then to negotiate with the administration instead of embarking on a hopeless crusade against Obama’s prized nuclear deal with Iran.
Many saw Netanyahu’s protracted unwillingness to sign a deal as reluctance to have Obama receive credit for any agreement with Israel, waiting for the next president instead – perhaps Trump. They detected Adelson’s hand in it. Eventually, Netanyahu decided not to jeopardize the deal on the table and thanked Obama for a “historic agreement.” But he seems to have angered his patron in doing so.
The signing of the military aid deal was followed by a bizarre attack on Netanyahu by Sen. Graham, who is one of the most pro-Israel figures, and closest to Adelson, in Washington. As chair of the Senate Committee on Appropriations, Graham had been instrumental in gaining additional allocations for Israeli defense projects. In signing the MOU, which included an Israeli commitment not to seek additional funds, he told Netanyahu, “When we try to help you, you pull the rug from under us. I think that is bad for Israel.” He accused Netanyahu of signing a deal with the administration designed to “shut out Congress and the next president,” and said the prime minister had made a mistake in dealing with Obama. “Graham wouldn’t have attacked Bibi without receiving permission from Adelson,” says one senior Israeli politician, well versed in the ties with Washington.
But it may be premature to talk of a split between Netanyahu and Adelson. Last month, Netanyahu was the keynote speaker at the inauguration of the new Dr. Miriam and Sheldon G. Adelson School of Entrepreneurship at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, with the Adelsons in attendance. Even so, while mentioning them warmly several times in his speech, Netanyahu didn’t spend much time extolling their contribution to Israel, as he once would have.
At 83, with his gambling empire having suffered setbacks in recent years and Adelson and his companies the focus of a number of investigations and lawsuits, the magnate’s influence is waning. He failed to make his mark on this year’s campaign, and in Israel he has become a figure of derision, regularly lampooned on TV satire shows and criticized for his influence by politicians on the left and right. Netanyahu himself is no longer certain he needs him anymore.
The 2016 presidential election is a seismic event in U.S. politics. Whatever the result on Wednesday morning – and going by the polls it is unlikely to be a Trump victory – the landscape in the Republican Party, and beyond, will never be the same.
Netanyahu is acutely aware that it will not be like the aftermath of 2012, when he could shrug off his failed support for Romney relatively easily. Those who endorsed Trump could well find themselves ostracized by large sections of the American establishment, and wider circles will be tainted by association. There will be scant forgiveness for those who were in favor of a candidate who sought to tear up the fabric of American democracy, or for those within the Jewish community who ignored the fact that Trump’s support included neo-Nazis and other racists, giving anti-Semitism its biggest boost in the United States in our lifetime.
Netanyahu respects and fears Hillary Clinton, much more than he ever did Barack Obama. He may be starting to realize that for him as prime minister, and for Israel’s interests, the Trump-supporting Adelson has finally become more of a liability than an asset.