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Billionaires Behaving Badly: Sheldon Adelson

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The owner of Las Vegas Sands is relatively unknown in the US. In Israel, his name is said to inspire self-censorship.

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Sheldon Adelson, not long ago the third richest American, made his billions on gambling in Las Vegas and then Macau, but Israel is where his fortune is most acutely felt. To take just one example: Israel Hayom, or Israel Today, the two-year-old right-wing free daily newspaper that Adelson founded and funds, currently leads Israel's circulation battle, with 35 percent of readers.

As the Independent (U.K.) reported, Israel Hayom "is such a strong backer of the prime minister that its critics call it 'Bibiton' – a play on the nickname of Benjamin Netanyahu." The prime minister, like many leaders in Israel, is a close friend of the Jewish billionaire Adelson, who is a self-professed Zionist bitterly opposed to a two-state solution. Adelson reportedly planned on investing $180 million in Israel Hayom.

In the United States, Adelson, the head of Las Vegas Sands Corp., has been described as the richest man people have never heard of. The same cannot be said for Israel. Adelson has given hundreds of millions of dollars to right-wing and Zionist causes, and also philanthropy, in Israel and also here. Adelson was one of the leading donors to President Bush's reelection campaign for 2004. Besides the billionaire brothers David and Charles Koch, Adelson has few peers in regards to funding right-wing groups.

Regardless of where one stands on Adelson's signature issues, it is hard to argue in favor of the way in which he wields his money to spread his political views. His money has become a powerful weapon for controversial and, in some cases, maligned causes.

"When Adelson was merely rich, he wrote checks for causes that he favored and for politicians whom he supported," wrote Connie Bruck in an exhaustive New Yorker profile published in 2008. Occasionally, he demanded to be heard. But he did not expect to play a significant role in U.S. foreign policy, or in Israel's strategic decisions, or in the fate of a sitting Israeli Prime Minister. That was before he acquired many billions of dollars…His political expenditures and his expectations have increased proportionately."

As Bruck reported, in Israel, political, academic, and business leaders often turn mum at the mention of Adelson. "There is a discernible amount of self-censorship going on," said the liberal Israeli-American writer Bernard Avishai, a contributing editor to the Harvard Business Review and previous contributor to the New York Review of Books and Harper's.

Adelson rarely gives interviews, and when he does they are narrowly focused ones to financial press. In the Forbes regular ranking, Adelson currently stands as the 13th richest American and 73rd richest person in the world. His net worth is $14.7 billion, below his pre-crash high but still well above Las Vegas Sands' nadir, when its share price almost touched $1. (It is now close to $40.)

Adelson, the son of a Lithuanian immigrant and cabdriver in Boston, borrowed $200 from an uncle to sell newspapers on street corners at age 12. He started a candy-vending-machine operation, attended trade school to become a court reporter, and then entered the Army. His entrepreneurship led him to start many businesses, and the one that broke it open was Comdex, an independent trade show he launched in Las Vegas in 1979. Soon he got into casinos, buying the old Sands Hotel. Then he opened the Venetian, where he tangled with the Culinary Union. He sold Comdex to Japan's Softbank for $862 million in 1995.

At the beginning of this decade, Adelson made his way into Macau as new gaming licenses were issued, ending the monopoly there of businessman Stanley Ho. The Sands Macau opened in May 2004. Macau turned Adelson into a multibillionaire once he took Las Vegas Sands public.

As his wealth grew, Adelson, once a Democrat, turned to the right, beginning to "favor tax-averse Republican economic policies," Bruck wrote. "He argued to an associate recently, 'Why is it fair that I should be paying a higher percentage of taxes than anyone else?'"

With that wealth, Adelson has quietly made his voice heard. He has long been committed to the Jewish state. In recent years, as Ha'aretz reported, Adelson was expected to donate around $200 million to charities every year. (One example is Taglit-Birthright Israel.)

Politically, Adelson is a major contributor to right-wing groups like the Zionist Organization of America, One Jerusalem, the powerful lobby American Israel Public Affairs Committee, or AIPAC, and think tank Adelson Institute for Strategic Studies. He has helped underwrite many congressional trips to Israel for AIPAC and three years ago funded its luxurious new office building. Adelson has also been one of the main donors to right-wing American political action committees, such as Freedom's Watch and American Solutions.

In recent years, Adelson and his company have faced at least three lawsuits involving their original efforts to secure gaming licenses in Macau. In court, he also has gone after journalists on several occasions, suing for libel by the London Daily Mail, Las Vegas Sun, and Las Vegas Review-Journal, with mixed results.

Which seems strange given his own role behind a daily newspaper. But Adelson has not been shy in using his wealth. As Ben-Dror Yemini, a columnist with the daily Ma'ariv told the Independent (U.K.), "This is endless capital with a political agenda. We have no idea how to deal with it."

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No positions in stocks mentioned.

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