by Jim Lobe and Eli Clifton
Mega-billionaire and the Trump campaign’s single biggest donor Sheldon Adelson has pledged to contribute $30 million to the Congressional Leadership Fund (CLF) Super PAC to defend the Republican majority in the House of Representatives in the 2018 election cycle. Having already influenced Trump’s policy on the Middle East, what more does Adelson expect to receive in return for his investment?
Adelson’s pledge—a commitment reportedly brokered by former senator Norm Coleman, the current chairman of the Republican Jewish Coalition (RJC)—came just a few days before Donald Trump announced that the U.S. is withdrawing from (i.e. violating) the Iran nuclear deal (the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA). Withdrawal has been a top RJC priority from the moment the deal was concluded in 2015.
Adelson’s commitment more than doubled the amount of money the CLF, the most important Republican SuperPAC for House races by far, will have to spend in the coming months. Add another half million dollars contributed so far this year by Bernard Marcus, the Trump campaign’s second biggest donor in 2016, and members of the RJC board of directors currently account for 56% of all donations to the CLF for the current cycle.
Adelson has yet to commit to the CLF’s counterpart, the Senate Leadership Fund (SLF), but thus far this year Marcus, the co-founder of Home Depot, has contributed $4 million. Another former RJC board member, Paul Singer, provided another $1 million for a total of $5 million, or 21% of all funds raised by the SLF in the current cycle. Adelson could easily throw another $30 million into the pot: that’s pocket change to a man whose net worth is estimated at more than $30 billion. Together with Marcus and Singer, Adelson could also pour a lot more money—both reported and/or via unreported “dark money” channels—into supporting congressional races in the mid-terms. Make no mistake: for Bibi Netanyahu, also a major beneficiary of Adelson’s largesse, maintaining Republican majorities in both houses of Congress is critically important given Democrats’ growing alienation from his increasingly right-wing government.
As detailed by Eli Clifton last year, the three billionaires contributed a total of more than $40 million to various pro-Trump political groups and causes in the 2016 cycle. Nor were they stingy about ensuring the retention of a Republican-dominated Congress. Together, they contributed a whopping $65 million to the SLF and the CLF at the same time. That was just shy of half of all donations contributed to the two Super PACS during that cycle.
Do the contributions from this billionaire trio connected to the RJC—Marcus and Adelson serve on the board and Singer has in the past—come with any quid pro quo connected to U.S. Mideast policy?
Tom Friedman suggested something along these lines just a few years ago in regard to a far larger segment of the U.S. population devoted to Israel’s increasingly right-wing government. The New York Times columnist stirred up a hornet’s nest in December 2011 when he denounced the shameless pandering by candidates for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination to Netanyahu and his U.S. supporters. Recalling the enthusiasm with which a joint session of Congress received Bibi earlier that year, Friedman wrote:
I sure hope that [Netanyahu] understands that the standing ovation he got in Congress this year was not for his politics. That ovation was bought and paid for by the Israel lobby.
The “bought and paid” line predictably provoked a storm of attacks led by neoconservatives such as Elliott Abrams (who falsely accused Friedman of using the phrase “Jewish Lobby,” adding “we all know what that means”) and Jennifer Rubin (who charged that Friedman’s true message was that “a cabal of Jews” had “bought and paid for …the entire U.S. Congress”). Then-Israeli Amb. Michael Oren also chimed in, insisting that Friedman had “strengthened a dangerous myth [regarding] …the existence of a Zionist cabal wielding inordinate economic and political power.”
So we’re aware of the backlash, accusations, and innuendo this phrase can provoke. (Indeed, the heat generated by those attacks was sufficiently searing that Friedman beat a partial retreat a few days later, insisting that “I probably should have used a more precise term like ‘engineered’ by the Israel lobby — a term that does not suggest grand conspiracy theories that I don’t subscribe to.”)
Still, it seems pertinent to ask whether Friedman’s assertion was not so far off the mark, at least as it applies to Adelson, the RJC, and Republican lawmakers today, or even in 2016.
The RJC, whose foreign-policy positions are remarkably consistent with those of Netanyahu’s Likud Party, has enjoyed a series of major victories over the past year thanks to the Trump administration. The president broke with decades of U.S. policy in the region by, among other things, recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, moving the U.S. embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, dropping the phrase “Occupied Territories” to describe the West Bank and East Jerusalem, nominating a staunch settlement advocate and funder as ambassador to Israel, withdrawing from UNESCO due to alleged anti-Israel bias, and slashing aid to the Palestinian Authority and the UN organization (UNRWA) that provides assistance to Palestinian refugees and their families. Under Trump, Washington has dropped any pretense of acting as an “honest broker” between Israel and the Palestinians.
Although a few Republican lawmakers have indicated reservations about some of these moves, the party’s congressional caucus as a whole has overwhelmingly supported and even applauded them.
The cherry on top came last week when Trump announced Washington’s withdrawal from the JCPOA, the deal negotiated by the Obama administration with Iran and the P5+1 (Britain, France, China, Russia, and the U.S., plus Germany) to curb Tehran’s nuclear program. Taking its cue from Netanyahu, rather than much of Israel’s national-security establishment, the RJC had vehemently opposed the deal, or indeed any agreement with Iran that fell short of Bibi’s maximum demands that it completely dismantle its nuclear infrastructure.
Although a few more “moderate” Republican lawmakers voiced concerns about the implications of Trump’s move for Washington’s relationship with its European allies and its international credibility more generally, most of those who spoke publicly about Trump’s decision praised it. For its part, the RJC “thank[ed]” Trump, noting that “Iran continues to be an existential threat to Israel, and continues to menace Israel directly and through its proxies (such as Hezbollah).” Coleman, the RJC chairman who reportedly brokered Adelson’s contribution, reached for a standard neoconservative meme in praising Trump’s announcement:
Years from now 110,000 pages of documents, videos and photographs presented by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu [the previous week] proving Iran lied its way into an agreement guaranteeing them a nuclear weapon by 2025 will be seen as a turning point in making the world safer.
So, too, will the decision by President Trump ending American participation in one of the most dangerous agreements with dictators since Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain walked off a plane and onto a tarmac in 1938 and assured the world of “Peace for our Time” with Adolf Hitler and his Nazi government.
Of course, the virtually total Republican congressional alignment with Netanyahu’s policies cannot be attributed solely to the generosity of the RJC’s donors. After all, Christian Fundamentalists, who support notions of a Greater Israel primarily for theological reasons, constitute a core Republican constituency, especially where the GOP is strongest along the Mason-Dixon line, the Deep South, the Midwest, and the Rocky Mountain states. In rural parts of those regions, Republican candidates for the House are virtually guaranteed to win elections and don’t really need financing from outside sources.
But in more purple districts and states, extra campaign money is critical, and that’s where RJC’s billionaire donors can make a huge difference, just as it probably did for Trump in 2016. Which raises the question raised by Friedman’s observation seven years ago: Is that difference how the GOP majority is “bought and paid for”?
If anything, the RJC and its billionaire donors have cemented their apparent hold over Republican policy toward the Middle East since Friedman penned his column. Israel itself has also become a far more partisan issue. Although the welcome received by Netanyahu in his 2011 appearance at the Capitol was largely bipartisan, the 26 standing ovations he received from the GOP-dominated Congress four years later, when he inveighed against the JCPOA, was confined almost exclusively to Republican lawmakers and their invited guests and staffs (to fill seats left empty by boycotting Democrats).
Seated in the front row of the House Visitors Gallery on the latter occasion were Sheldon and Miriam Adelson, whose presence, according to Bill Moyers, was “[e]verything you need to know about [Netanyahu’s] speech on that day.” The Adelsons, he noted, had contributed $150 million to the GOP and its PACs during the 2012 election cycle—perhaps more via “dark money”—making the two of them the biggest individual donors by far to the Republican Party.
By 2014, the Adelsons had established themselves, at least in the eyes of aspiring Republican presidential contenders, during the annual meeting of the Republican Jewish Coalition (RJC) at the couple’s Venetian Hotel in Las Vegas as they all gathered to gain the favor of the Adelsons and other RJC donors. The same scene was repeated at the RJC’s annual convention at the same locale in December the following year as the race for the 2016 nomination intensified. “Sheldon Adelson Is Ready to Buy the Presidency,” headlined a lengthy profile in New York magazine just three months before.
Ironically, the only candidate at the 2015 RJC gathering who sounded a defiant note was Donald Trump. “You’re not gonna support me because I don’t want your money,” he told the audience. You want to control your politicians; that’s fine. …I do want your support, but I don’t want your money.” At the same meeting, he elicited boos from the audience by refusing to offer his views on Jerusalem’s status and suggested in an AP interview that the burden of peace-making should fall more on the Israelis than the Palestinians. Two months later, he hinted that he favored doing more business with Iran, particularly by selling it Boeing aircraft.
As we noted last year, however, Trump effectively flip-flopped on virtually every one of these issues by March 2016 when he addressed the annual policy conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). His reversal coincided with a quiet but very intense and ultimately successful courtship of the Adelsons by son-in-law Jared Kushner and Israeli ambassador to the U.S. Ron Dermer. Trump, like most Republican lawmakers, may have wanted money from the couple and other RJC donors after all.
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.