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(photo credit: AP [file])
Every so often Diaspora Jewish millionaires (or billionaires) get it into their heads that it's up to them to save Israel from itself and try to use their considerable wealth to influence policy here.
Although such examples exist across the political spectrum - the Bronfmans would be the most notable example on the Left - most in recent years have come from the Right, such as the Australian Chabad gold magnate Joseph Gutnick, who (in)famously sponsored the "Bibi is good for the Jews" campaign during the 1996 election.
The most prominent example today is casino mogul Sheldon Adelson, America's richest Jew and overall third-richest individual, and in recent years the most generous philanthropic donor to Israel, primarily to the birthright program and Yad Vashem.
Adelson was the subject of a lengthy profile last week in The New Yorker written by Connie Bruck (who is married to former congressman, AIPAC board member and Barack Obama-supporter Mel Levine), which is well worth reading for the insight it offers into his background, his business dealings in Las Vegas and China and his dealings with the White House and other players in the American-Jewish community.
The piece, though, is on shakier ground when it comes to Adelson's efforts to influence Israeli politics, primarily through his investment in the give-away newspaper Yisrael Hayom.
Bruck dutifully notes how the paper has become known in local media circles as the "Bibi-ton," due to its clear slant in favor of Likud leader Binyamin Netanyahu; recounts Adelson's attempts to influence Shas and former coalition member Israel Beiteinu to quit the Olmert government; and describes how his sponsorship of President Shimon Peres's "Facing Tomorrow" conference got him a front-row seat next to all the machers present.
Bruck goes on, though, to claim: "In Israel, where political, academic and business leaders tend to be outspoken, there is a striking reticence at the mention of Sheldon Adelson. Even people who are diametrically opposed to his politics refuse to be interviewed. 'There is a discernible amount of self-censorship going on,' the liberal Israeli-American writer Bernard Avishai said. 'There is no ideological justification for what Sheldon is doing among the Israeli intelligentsia and a revulsion at an American weighing in so heavily on Israeli politics, in such a crude, reactionary way. But they won't speak.'"
Well, this is nonsense, of course. I don't know who Bruck tried to interview, and of course anybody who's been a direct beneficiary of Adelson's laudable generosity - including presumably the intelligentsia at Jerusalem's Shalem Center, the right-wing think tank he has generously sponsored - is unlikely to go on record criticizing him. But plenty of people (including this writer) have gone on record regarding Adelson's political meddling, and Bruck herself quotes from Yediot Aharonot columnist Nahum Barnea's broadsides against "a right-wing extremist, who is convinced that Israel is governed by a corrupt, unpatriotic and illegitimate government," and "Adelson's project" Yisrael Hayom that "publishes only what Adelson himself would want to read - if he could read Hebrew, that is. The same agenda, day in, day out, relentlessly. This is the stuff propaganda is made of, not journalism."
Bruck concludes: "However much influence Adelson's wealth has brought him in [the US] in the last few years, it is modest compared with his sway in Israel."
Really? I doubt it, any more than Adelson's desire to expand his casino business to Israel has succeeded in pushing forward the issue of legalized gambling. Somehow, with all this money spent, Bibi's own fortunes haven't yet noticeably improved, and the government Adelson reportedly despises is still standing firm (if not Ehud Olmert himself, which may actually be good news for the Kadima-led coalition).
One reason, as those who live here know, is that Israel is a fairly insular society, pretty resistant to interference from outsiders.
Israelis themselves largely prefer not to advertise that fact, though, because after all, they benefit handsomely from the philanthropy and investment of wealthy Diaspora Jews who think otherwise.
But it takes more than throwing money at projects like Yisrael Hayom to significantly influence the Israeli public or the direction of its internal political debate. Someone who sees this mission as a full-time job requiring a real presence here, such as the Israeli-Russian oligarch Arkadi Gaydamak, has a better chance of having such an impact.
Yet even Gaydamak's political ambitions seem to be faltering of late, because of his own inability to acclimate to local mores, and the fact that his once-seemingly limitless financial largesse seems to be drying up.
I'm not denying that Israelis to a certain extent can't be bought - but they don't come so cheap anymore (except for some Knesset members). To have real influence in Israel nowadays requires a truly major business investment - something on the order of Shari Arison's multibillion-dollar purchase of Bank Hapoalim - and not the funding of think tanks and giveaway newspapers.
Of course, Adelson is still a man - or a Jew - on a mission, and his spending here, especially on media properties, may not be at an end. He is once again said to be negotiating with the Nimrodi family over a potential purchase of Ma'ariv, although recent reports also suggest a rival for the paper may have emerged in the form of Leonid Blavatnik, a London-based Russian-Jewish ogliarch far more low-key than the likes of Adelson or Gaydamak.
I, for one, would gladly welcome either billionaire making that deal, or any other they cared to invest in the local media market. Diaspora Jews, at any rate, are going to continue to vent their views on how Israel should conduct itself no matter what, so at least they should be encouraged to put their money where their mouth is, when giving us their two cents worth.