This morning in Jerusalem, the multi-billionaire casino magnate Sheldon Adelson was awarded with the Jerusalem International Tourism Summit Honorary Award. Adelson, 79, one of the world’s wealthiest men—and perhaps the single non-Israeli with the most clout in this country—is perhaps best known for his failed attempt to unseat President Obama by pledging 100 million dollars to the Gingrich and Romney campaigns in the run-up to last year’s elections.
At the summit, he was saluted for his “innovation and excellence in international tourism,” having revolutionized tourism in Las Vegas in the 1980s, and more recently in Macao and Singapore. But his rare public appearance felt less like a formal ceremony and more like a visit by a wealthy gvir to his ever-thankful shtetl. Though he is in many ways even more influential in Israel than in the States, today’s ceremony showed that he is still viewed here with ambivalence.
Despite temperatures in the balmy 70s, Adelson gave what the organizers called a “fire-side” chat with emcee Michael Greenspan. He was happy to talk about his unarguably extraordinary philanthropy, having given hundreds of millions of dollars to a long list of charitable causes, Birthright chief among them. “Tens of thousands of marriages have resulted from the 350,000 Birthright participants,” Adelson proudly reported, with “American Jews traveling thousands of miles to meet Jews who live only five minutes away.” But the elephant in the room—his controversial political power—went un-addressed. Adelson is a close friend of, and longtime donor to, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Since 2007, Adelson has bankrolled the free daily tabloid Israel Hayom, which many see as a heavily biased, personal mouthpiece for Netanyahu—especially unsettling given that it’s eclipsed its competitors to become Israel’s most widely-read daily.
Indeed, though Adelson didn’t talk politics, everyone else has been. Nahum Barnea, one of Israel’s most respected journalists (of the Israel Hayom competitor Yedioth Ahronoth) recently suggested that Nir Barkat, Jerusalem’s mayor, was awarding Adelson the prize in a bald attempt to curry favor with Netanyahu. Notably, no award was given at the previous conference, held two years ago, and whether one will be given at future conferences is unclear. According to Barnea, with municipal elections coming up, Barkat fears that Netanyahu might back one of his opponents in the race—hence the award to Netanyahu’s patron (and the naming of an interchange after his recently deceased father, Benzion Netanyahu).
But not a word of politics was spoken on stage, as—flanked by Mayor Barkat, Minister of Tourism Uzi Landau and two American Birthright participants—Adelson accepted the award. They were promptly joined by three fully-costumed tenors from the Venetian Macao resort for a rousing rendition of Funiculì, Funiculà.
Tal Kra-Oz is a writer based in Tel Aviv.