Jerusalem – Sheldon Adelson has spent the past two decades collecting a string of casinos, but now the billionaire – considered by many to be the richest Jew in the world – is taking another kind of gamble.
Two weeks ago, Adelson, CEO of the Las Vegas Sands Corp., launched Yisrael Hayom, or Israel Today, a free daily newspaper that on its first day was already one of the largest-circulation papers in the country. Adelson’s new paper is drawing questions from other journalists, who worry about the mogul’s connections to Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu, and also from the owners of other Israeli newspapers, who are a famously tight-knit club.
“Adelson has shaken things up. The doyens of the three dailies are alarmed by this ‘intrusion’ as they see it,” Amotz Asa-El, former executive editor of, and continuing columnist for, The Jerusalem Post told the Forward. “They feel very threatened by this.”
The first edition of Yisrael Hayom appeared July 29 and, like many new entrants onto the newspaper scene, was given out free to readers. Most free newspapers, including one that launched in Israel last year, are handed out at train and bus stations, but Adelson’s paper was delivered to 100,000 mailboxes in affluent parts of the country. Reports put Adelson’s planned investment in Yisrael Hayom at $ 180 million over three years. A first-day column by editor Amos Regev promised “a better press,” a “different kind of journalism” and even an occasional look at Israel’s positive news.
Adelson is the latest foreign mogul to insert himself into the Israeli media scene. Canadian press magnate Conrad Black owned The Jerusalem Post for many years, and when he ended up in legal trouble it was another Canadian, Leonard Asper, who tried to buy him out. American media mogul Haim Saban has amassed a number of Israeli television holdings. Adelson’s first job, when he was a youngster in Boston, is said to have been selling newspapers on a street corner. But unlike past foreign investors in Israel, Adelson has no previous involvement in the media world. With his new paper, he is inserting himself into the Hebrew newspaper scene with a product created from scratch, according to his own vision.
Israel’s largest existing newspapers are controlled by a few families: the left-leaning Ha’aretz by the Schocken family, and the more right-wing tabloid, Ma’ariv, by the Nimrodi family. Adelson’s moves have already evoked an immediate response from the establishment. Yediot Aharonot, the largest daily paper, has tasked a senior editor to begin developing its own free daily. Ma’ariv, believed to be the most vulnerable, immediately began running stories excoriating the new paper’s management for perceived ethical lapses.
Adelson’s entry into the market comes at a sensitive time for rich foreign investors in Israel, according to Daniel Ben Simon, a journalist at Ha’aretz. Ben Simon noted that Adelson’s paper comes on the heels of ramped-up activity by such Russian Israelis as Arkady Gaydamak and Leonid Nevzlin, and this has some Israelis suspicious and worried.
“They want to buy a share of Israel with their money,” Ben Simon said. “Israelis don’t want the country to be made into a casino for rich people.”
Adelson, who made most of his money developing the Las Vegas Sands company, is reputed to be worth more than USD 26.5 billion. Since the initial public offering of the Sands in 2004, Adelson and his wife, a doctor of Israeli origin, have ramped up their philanthropic involvement, particularly in the Jewish world. They have endowed a right-leaning think tank and a hospital ward in Israel. And last year they announced the formation of a family foundation that, it was rumored, would give away USD 200 million a year to Jewish causes.
Those numbers have not been borne out yet, but Adelson has been making a splash. He was in Israel this week, apparently tending to a number of his different projects. It was the week of the Likud primaries, in which his friend, Netanyahu, was the front runner. He also held a meeting at the president’s house, in which he announced a new USD 30 million gift to Birthright Israel, a program that has received much of his philanthropic largesse thus far.
In all this work, Adelson has not kept his ideological leanings secret. He came to Israel this week with a delegation of Republican congressmen from the United States. And an organizer for Birthright told Ha’aretz that Adelson shares his views with program participants and that he recently passed out copies of a documentary on how Islam is spreading in the West.
Yisrael Hayom is Adelson’s third try in a year to gain a foothold in the Israeli media. Adelson was a backer of the Israeli, another free daily newspaper, but after the launch a year ago, Adelson ran into legal difficulties with his erstwhile partner and lost a court battle. This forced him out of the paper. Efforts by Adelson to acquire Ma’ariv collapsed earlier this year.
Sources told the Forward that Netanyahu had an open line to the Israeli’s editorial department when Adelson was involved with the paper. Some of those editors have since moved to Yisrael Hayom. Adelson also plucked away some of the top writers from the right-leaning Ma’ariv, including columnist Dan Margalit. The fact that this group is perceived to be friendly to Netanyahu has not been lost on people.
“Adelson is coming with an agenda,” said one leading Israeli journalist who did not want to be identified, as he is from a competing media company. “He comes with a right-wing political agenda with the interest of making [someone] a prime minister — and that’s Bibi.”
Politically motivated papers do have a precedent in Israel. Until 20 years ago, Israeli political parties owned and directly controlled Israeli’s mainstream newspapers. But those days are gone now. In the current climate, Asa-El was skeptical of Adelson’s ability to push a pro-Bibi agenda.
“Adelson and Bibi don’t deny a close relationship,” he said. “But the question is whether this publication is headed for activism. If so, the Israeli experience in recent years has been vicious to papers like this, as people have become less ideological and more centrist.”
Adelson has not discussed his reasons for launching Yisrael Hayom. A representative at the Adelson’s Israel offices in Ramat Gan said that Adelson has released no statements on the subject. The representative referred all calls to the newspaper. Neither Yisrael Hayom’s general manager nor the editor returned calls seeking comment.