by Jim Lobe and Eli Clifton
Amid continuing controversy over whether and how much Donald Trump owes his election to Vladimir Putin, it seems pertinent to ask whether he has other IOUs outstanding.
Although his consistent praise of the Russian leader—and now his angry denials about the allegations contained in the notorious “Kompromat” dossier—has dominated media attention, a major change during the campaign in Trump’s views concerning Israel and its government’s drive to expand settlements in East Jerusalem and the West Bank has gotten almost no press at all. That such a change may have been encouraged by the man who turned out to be his biggest financial supporter by far has been largely overlooked. On Thursday, Sheldon Adelson visited the president-elect in Trump Tower, and yet still the media hasn’t taken note.
After all, it was nearly 15 months ago, in October 2015, that Trump complained in a tweet that, “Sheldon Adelson is looking to give big dollars to [Marco] Rubio because he feels he can mold him into the perfect little puppet. I agree!”
The tweet’s lack of context made it unclear why Trump believed Adelson wanted to use Rubio. But it’s no secret that, as Newt Gingrich has said, the multi-billionaire casino magnate’s “central value” is unconditional support for Israel, particularly its right-wing leader, Benjamin Netanyahu and his Likud party. And, indeed, Rubio appeared to be the favorite of hardline pro-Israel neocons—some of whom have benefited from Adelson’s largesse—amid the crowded GOP presidential field.
Trump Flirts with Neutrality
In fact, Trump did little to ingratiate himself with the same crowd in the early days of the campaign. At an early December 2015 meeting of the militantly Zionist Republican Jewish Coalition (RJC), of which Adelson is a former chairman, co-founder, and biggest donor, Trump seemed churlishly defiant, suggesting that he would not accept any strings attached to their contributions.
You’re not gonna support me because I don’t want your money. You want to control your politicians; that’s fine. …I do want your support, but I don’t want your money.
The reception he got there was less than enthusiastic. His refusal to offer his views on whether Jerusalem should remain Israel’s undivided capital elicited boos from the audience. It also didn’t help that Associated Press had published an interview with Trump just the day before in which he appeared to put the burden of achieving peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians on the former.
“I have a real question as to whether or not both sides want to make it,” Trump said in the interview, adding that his concerns were greater regarding “one side in particular. …A lot will have to do with Israel and whether or not Israel wants to make the deal — whether or not Israel’s willing to sacrifice certain things.”
Two months later, during the Republican candidates’ debate in South Carolina, Trump pledged to make a major effort to negotiate a peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians. In order to do so, he insisted that he had to act as an honest broker, which was presumably the last thing that Adelson wanted to hear.
“Let me be sort of a neutral guy,” Trump said, provoking rival Ted Cruz (reportedly the favored candidate of Adelson’s spouse, Miriam) to wax indignant over the front-runner’s position “As president, I will be unapologetically with the nation of Israel,” the Texan declared. Remarkably, Trump stood his ground, promising to give a peace accord “one hell of a shot” and reiterating his uncertainty about Israel’s intentions. “It has to be said that Israel has given a lot,” he said. “I don’t know whether or they want to go along to that final step (of making a deal)….I think it serves no purposes [sic] generally to say there’s a good guy and a bad guy.”
Comments such as these encouraged a belief that a Trump presidency would actually establish some distance between Washington and Tel Aviv or even be prepared to exert real pressure on Israel to make major concessions to achieve the long-sought two-state solution. After all, these statements were arguably of a piece with Trump’s denunciation of the Iraq war and the general notion that he was some kind of “isolationist” who, in any event, was not nearly as interventionist or pro-Israel as Hillary Clinton. The fact that Bill Kristol and many of his fellow pro-Likud neoconservatives led the “NeverTrump campaign” certainly lent credence to that view.
Trump Pivots to Pandering
On May 3, however, Trump gave an interview in London’s Daily Mail voicing strong approval of continued Israeli settlement of the West Bank and East Jerusalem, which most analysts believe will kill the possibility of a two-state solution. Asked whether there should be a pause in new construction, Trump replied,
No, I don’t think there should be a pause. Look: missiles were launched into Israel, and Israel, I think never was properly treated by our country. …They really have to keep going [in building settlements]. They have to keep moving forward.
That statement, which the major media largely ignored at the time, presaged the nomination of David Friedman, Trump’s bankruptcy lawyer and a patron of the settlement movement as his future ambassador to Israel. Indeed, Trump’s expressions of fervent support for Israel, and Prime Minister Netanyahu in particular, have only increased since the election. Most dramatically last month, he called President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi at Netanyahu’s behest to persuade the Egyptian leader to withdraw his draft UN Security Council resolution condemning settlements. Subsequently, Trump has reportedly wanted to invite Netanyahu to attend his inauguration.
Trump is notorious for changing his positions. But this pivot seems particularly radical. At one point, Trump was mocking Rubio for being a puppet of Sheldon Adelson and declaring his own neutrality between Israelis and Palestinians in future peace negotiation. A few months later, he was expressing his support not only for Israel in general but for the Jewish settlement movement in the Occupied Territories and choosing Friedman, a promoter of the most extreme elements of the settlement movement and an avowed foe of the two-state solution, as his next ambassador to Israel. What happened in the interim?
The Adelson Connection
Trump’s speech at the annual policy conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) on March 21 was a turning point. There Trump retreated into full panderer mode, repeating all the clichés—“no daylight between America and our most reliable ally, the state of Israel;” “unbreakable” bond; “move the American embassy to the eternal capital of the Jewish people, Jerusalem”—that are de rigueur for aspiring Republican (and too many Democratic) politicians. That it was reportedly “written with a healthy dose of input by his son-in-law, the Jewish developer and newspaper owner Jared Kushner, and Ron Dermer, Israel’s ambassador to the U.S.”—and delivered with the unprecedented help of a teleprompter—suggested that something fundamental in Trump’s public views of Israel or the U.S. role in future negotiations had changed. Indeed, in contrast to his previous statements, he made very clear that the main obstacle to a peace agreement was Palestinian terrorism and rejectionism while Israel, on the other hand, was blameless. Trump has maintained this position to this day. The contrast with his unscripted RJC presentation was remarkable, to say the least.
Most likely, Trump’s pivot reflects the growing influence on Trump of both Kushner and Dermer—and the desire to gain the Adelsons’ financial backing. Both Kushner and Dermer have become critical conduits to the multi-billionaire couple who, despite Sheldon’s early support for Rubio and Miriam’s for Cruz, ultimately became Trump’s biggest financial backer. They contributed anywhere from $20 million to $35 million to support Trump’s candidacy, according to various published sources. Although that was considerably short of the roughly $100 million the Adelsons contributed to the Romney campaign in 2012, it was still more than the billionaire-candidate himself ploughed into his own election effort ($18.3 million, according to FEC filings).
According to the Wall Street Journal, Dermer, a native Floridian and long-time Republican activist, has worked as a key “liaison to influential Republican campaign financiers like Sheldon Adelson.” It was Dermer who conspired with the Republican leadership (behind the backs of the White House and the Democratic leadership) to invite Netanyahu to blast nuclear negotiations with Iran before a joint session of Congress in February 2015. He also helped arrange front-row balcony seats for the Adelsons and their entourage for the occasion. Dermer, sometimes referred to as “Bibi’s brain,” also spoke at the “Adelson primary” at the Venetian in Las Vegas in 2014, lending the forum a kind official Bibi blessing.
As for Kushner, whom Trump named on Monday as a “senior adviser” with a White House office, Politico noted back in July not only that his influence had risen sharply over the course of the campaign but that he had also emerged as a key liaison to …Adelson.
The young New York City real estate and media mogul, who is married to Trump’s daughter Ivanka, has become the most powerful operative atop the campaign in the month since the candidate’s children banded together and forced the ouster of Corey Lewandowski and his ‘Let Trump be Trump’ approach.
Now Kushner is making key hires, fine-tuning and sharpening Trump’s speeches and serving as the central emissary behind the scenes, meeting privately last month with House Speaker Paul Ryan, having direct conversations with billionaire Sheldon Adelson and asserting influence on everything from Trump’s search for a running mate – he pushed hard for Newt Gingrich, large at Adelson’s behest – to his tweets.[Emphasis added.]
In the election’s aftermath, as Trump touted Kushner as a possible mediator between Israel and the Palestinians, The New York Times noted in a profile of the young heir that he “has become Mr. Trump’s intermediary with a variety of important Israeli and Jewish American players, including Mr. Netanyahu, Mr. Dermer and wealthy donors like Sheldon Adelson, the Nevada casino magnate. He brokered a meeting between Mr. Trump and Mr. Netanyahu in September and sat in on it.”
Kushner has neither been a frequent visitor to Israel nor has he publicly expressed his own views of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But the Times article reported that he has known “Netanyahu casually since childhood through is father, Charles Kushner, a real estate tycoon who has been active in business and philanthropy in Israel. And he is friends with Nir Barkat, the [rightwing] mayor of Jerusalem.” And Kushner’s family foundation, of which he is a director, has itself contributed to Jewish settlements on the West Bank. These settlements include Beit El, a radical religious community near Ramallah for which Friedman is the chief U.S. fund-raiser, and Od Yosef Chai Yeshiva, which the Israeli government defunded for inciting “price tag” attacks on Palestinians. Earlier this week, Haaretz reported that the foundation has given several hundred thousand dollars to institutions sponsored by Chabad, adding that, “In Israel, the movement is affiliated with the political right wing, and its followers tend to be staunch supporters of the settler movement.”
The Adelsons themselves have supported the settlements through contributions to the Central Fund of Israel, although, like the Kushners, that support has paled in comparison to the tens of millions of dollars in philanthropy to hospitals and other institutions inside the Green Line as well as their backing for the Birthright program that sends thousands of young Jewish Americans to Israel each year. Adelson has never seemed bothered by the idea that Israel should annex most or all of the West Bank, as well as East Jerusalem. In recent years, the couple has also been the biggest funder of the Zionist Organization of America, which opposes the two-state solution despite Netanyahu’s nominal support for the idea. Significantly, for the first time since the George W. Bush administration, the Republican Party dropped any reference to the two-state solution from its platform last summer, a reflection of the influence of Adelsons and the RJC, as well as Christians United for Israel and other Christian Zionist groups.
Despite his taunting of Rubio for being Adelson’s “perfect little puppet” in October 2015 and his boasts of independence to the RJC two months later, Trump himself was actively pursuing Adelson’s financial support since at least that November. According to Politico:
…[S]ources close to the Trump campaign said that it went to great lengths to cast the candidate as an Israel supporter to appeal to [Paul] Singer [who opposed Trump until his election], Adelson and other similarly minded megadonors. In its interactions with Adelson’s representatives, the campaign highlighted a campaign ad Trump cut in 2013 urging Israeli voters to reelect their hawkish Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is a favorite of Adelson’s. “We had really tried to promote Trump as pro-Israel,” the source said. “He’s always wanted Adelson money.”
Despite the embarrassment at the RJC meeting last December, the Adelsons apparently began courting Trump in earnest in just a couple of weeks later when the three of them met for a private get-together after which the casino magnate declared the candidate “very charming.” It’s unclear whether Kushner or Dermer were also present, but the main subject was Jerusalem and Israel. “He had talked about potentially dividing Jerusalem and Israel [at the RJC meeting], so I talked about Israel because with our newspaper, my wife being Israeli, we are the few who know more about Israel than people who don’t,” Adelson told Business Insider immediately afterwards. Trump was clearly pleased, tweeting: “Sheldon knows that nobody will be more loyal to Israel than Donald Trump.” They apparently kept in touch over the following six months as, one by one, the candidates who made support for Israel a centerpiece of their foreign policy platforms fell by the wayside.
On May 5—two days after the Daily Mail interview about Trump’s support for the settlements and three weeks before the Ohio primary that clinched him the nomination—Adelson announced his support for Trump, telling one reporter that he thought the presumptive nominee “will be good for Israel.”
Putin may indeed be holding some of the strings attached to the president-elect. But, as puppeteers, the Adelsons have likely attached a few of their own. Look for them at the inauguration next week.
Photo: Donald Trump and the Adelsons (Andy Abboud via Twitter)
Eli Clifton reports on money in politics and US foreign policy. Eli previously reported for the American Independent News Network, ThinkProgress, and Inter Press Service.