Sheldon Adelson, the U.S. casino mogul who has called himself the world’s richest Jew, couldn’t vote in Israel’s parliamentary elections in January. That didn’t stop his free daily newspaper, Yisrael Hayom, from publishing a front-page editorial last year arguing in favor of bombing Iran’s nuclear facilities -- an option voiced by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Since its inception in 2007, Adelson’s Tel Aviv-based paper has supported Netanyahu, the leader of the Likud party. The paper had the highest weekday readership in the country last year, according to a Target Group Index Israel survey.
“Yisrael Hayom has had a huge effect,” Elliott Abrams, a senior fellow for Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, said by telephone. “It has to be one of the best investments anybody has ever made in terms of trying to have a political impact. It’s basically a pro-Likud paper.”
Adelson, the 79-year-old chairman of Las Vegas Sands Corp., who has a net worth of $25.9 billion, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index, is one of at least five American billionaires who have spent their money trying to shape Israel’s political landscape. Some of the moguls donate directly to candidates and non-profits; another funds the construction of settlements in contested Jerusalem neighborhoods.
“It would be naive to say that none of them have any business interests in Israel,” said Ronald Zweig, a history professor and director of the Taub Center for Israel Studies at New York University. “The most likely source of financial investment in the political system is ideological.”
Adelson has spent millions of dollars in Israel, including donations to Taglit-Birthright Israel, a non-profit organization that offers free trips to the country for foreign Jews between the ages 18 to 26, according to its website. The Adelson Family Foundation has donated more than $100 million to the group.
Ron Reese, a spokesman for Adelson at Las Vegas Sands, said in an e-mail the billionaire declined to comment.
Israeli election law prohibits foreigners from giving to parties during the general elections, so foreign contributions have to be made directly to candidates during the primary campaigns. The Israeli parliament, the Knesset, is made up of 120 seats that are assigned based on the number of votes each party receives.
The combined Likud-Beitenu list won the most Knesset seats, 31, in the Jan. 22 elections, which allowed Netanyahu to continue to serve as prime minister. His cabinet was approved on Monday -- two days before U.S. President Barack Obama landed in Israel to visit with Israeli and Palestinian leaders.
Seagram Co. beverage scion Charles Bronfman, 81, and his cousin Joanie donated almost $20,000 (NIS 70,000) to the primary campaign of Tzipi Livni, according to documents released by the State Comptroller of Israel. Livni, the country’s former foreign minister, is an advocate for a two-state solution with the Palestinians and will be a part of Netanyahu’s government coalition.
The Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies Inc., a New York-based philanthropic group, has given hundreds of thousands of dollars to the New Israel Fund, a non-profit organization that supports causes such as environmentalism and women’s rights in Israel, according to Steve Rothman, the fund’s development director.
Bronfman was chairman of Koor Industries Ltd., a Tel Aviv-based holding company, from 1997 to 2006.
The influx of foreign money has drawn the ire of some Israelis. In 2006, current President Shimon Peres was investigated by State Comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss for $220,000 in donations from billionaires Haim Saban, 68, and S. Daniel Abraham, and a $100,000 contribution from the late financier Bruce Rappaport. A report on the investigation did not suggest any criminal charges and requested that Peres return the donations, which he did not.
Saban purchased a 30.7 percent stake in Partner Communications Co., Israel’s second-biggest mobile provider, in December.
“I’m a law-abiding citizen of America and have been all my life,” said Abraham, who made his fortune selling the Slim-Fast diet beverage brand to Rotterdam-based Unilever NV in 2000 for $2.4 billion. “The laws of America and the laws of Israel allow open solicitation from American citizens to give to candidates in Israel of their choice. So I abide by the laws of Israel and America.”
In this recent election cycle, Abraham donated to Livni’s campaign. In addition to joining the coalition as justice minister, Livni will manage talks with the Palestinians.
“I know Sheldon and I think he’s a good man, but we disagree on how Israel should handle the conflict with the Palestinians,” said Abraham, who said he places a high value on making peace.
American involvement in Israeli elections goes beyond politics. Michael Steinhardt, 72, a former hedge-fund manager gave about $2,500 to his “close friend” Yair Lapid, leader of the Yesh Atid Party and the country’s newly appointed finance minister, in June 2012. He said most of his giving goes to candidates that he knows personally and thinks are qualified to lead, and that he has donated to candidates across the political spectrum.
“Adelson is very ideologically motivated; I’m not so ideologically motivated,” said Steinhardt in a telephone interview last month. “I’m happy that Yair did so well. This is based on friendship, and people I felt I liked and people I thought would do a good job.”
The New York-based Open Society Foundations, started by billionaire hedge-fund manager George Soros, 82, has given money to various causes within Israel, including Breaking the Silence, a non-governmental organization that publishes testimony from Israeli soldiers who have served in the contested territories of Gaza and the West Bank.
Donations to Israeli non-profits account for a small portion of the foundation’s total giving, which was $813 million in 2012, according to Laura Silber, a spokeswoman for the organization. Soros has a $22.9 billion fortune, according to the Bloomberg ranking.
Foreign influence has been a part of Israeli governance since the country was established in 1948. Israel’s nuclear program was financed in part by donations from abroad, according to “Israel and the Bomb,” a book by historian Avner Cohen.
American giving continues in Israel today. Ira Rennert, the billionaire founder of Renco Group Inc., has given millions to construct Jewish homes in Arab neighborhoods of Jerusalem. Building projects in contested areas have come under criticism by Obama, who has pushed Israel to freeze construction of settlements in Palestinian areas.
“Mr. Rennert’s public support for Israel is well known,” said Andrew Shea, a spokesman for Rennert. “He has a long and distinguished record of supporting philanthropic efforts dedicated to advancing education and prosperity in the region. And he will continue to support initiatives that work toward achieving these important goals.”
Even non-Jewish Americans are getting involved in Israeli politics.
“I’m a liberal, pro-gay, pro-womens’ rights, pro-Obama person who was raised as a Catholic. I am and always have been interested in Israel,” said Robert Shrum, a former Democratic speech writer who advised Ted Kennedy and John Kerry, and has also worked for former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and the Israeli Labor Party. “I care about the place, I care about the country, and I care about its survival.”