by Paul Mutter

The “Sheldon Primary” is how casino mogul Sheldon Adelson showcases his political clout in the United States. As Jim Lobe reports, Israel was the main issue on the table for the line of Republican hopefuls who came to Las Vegas this weekend to curry favor with the pro-Israel billionaire and fervent supporter of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

The influence Adelson has over the GOP on Israel was underlined by an embarrassing moment for New Jersey governor Chris Christie at the gala. In an attempt to impress his audience with pro-Israel bromides, he uttered the words “occupied territories” — a grievous mistake in front of someone like Adelson, who rejects a two-state solution and considers the West Bank to be part of Israel, indivisible. Christie, not known for making fulsome apologies or backing down from a controversy, nonetheless apologized to Adelson in private, according to Politico, trying to make clear that it was only a poor choice of words. For the record, “occupied territories” is correct according to the official US government position, which takes it cue from the United Nations.

Adelson is also in Israeli headlines this week, and not just because of his moment with Christie. Not satisfied with Israel Today (Israel Hayom), the free, pro-Netanyahu tabloid he set up in 2007, Adelson has now bought two other Israeli outlets, the national-religious daily Makor Rishon and the online version of the insolvent center-right daily Maariv, NRG, for $5 million from its parent media group. NRG, which reflects Maariv’s center-right editorial line, reaches a large online audience. Makor Rishon, printed only in Hebrew, has low circulation but is very well-read among the national-religious settler establishment. The purchase indicates further consolidation of media ownership in Israel, but the politics of it is another matter entirely.

Israel Today, founded in 2007, evokes memories of the hyper-partisan dailies of 1950s Israel. Since 2010, it has been the highest circulated daily in the country. Critics and supporters of Likud — even Netanyahu himself — say that the paper’s editorials helped him triumph in the 2009 Knesset (parliamentary) elections.

After seven years in print and two national elections, Israel Today (nicknamed “Bibiton”) has transformed the face of Israeli media. Economically, its free distribution upset the models for the other main dailies (Haaretz, Maariv, and Yediot Aharonot). Israeli media watcher Tal Schneider estimates that it currently costs Adelson $3 million a month to keep it afloat. Adelson’s print competitors simply cannot match this level of capital. Shlomo Ben-Zvi, owner of the national-religious daily Makor Rishin who took over Maariv and NRG in 2012, once hoped that he would be able to compete with Adelson directly. But his attempt never had a real chance given the financial distance between the two men.

Israeli legal efforts to undercut Adelson have also failed. A 2009 Knesset bill (quietly applauded by some of Israel Today’s competitors) would have barred foreigners from owning Israeli newspapers; it was clearly aimed at undercutting Adelson’s influence. Though that bill failed, Knesset members have now introduced legislation that would limit free newspaper distribution and fix prices for print sales. Israel Today will lose its competitive advantage if this becomes law.

Ambitious Israeli right-wing politicians seem to agree that the casino mogul has gone too far with his purchase of Maariv‘s properties — Israel Today, NRG (due to its relationship with Maariv), and Makor Rishon all have a reputation of being very close to the Prime Minister’s Office under Netanyahu.

Netanyahu’s nominal allies cannot stand the advantage Adelson’s tabloid gives him. Naftali Bennett and Avigdor Lieberman, Netanyahu’s Minister of the Economy and his Minister of Foreign Affairs, respectively, have both belittled Israel Today as the country’s own Soviet Pravda. They would also would jump at a chance to become the prime minister of Israel.

Netanyahu’s leadership rivals thus fear that if Adelson has his way, he will bless “Bibi” in perpetuity, while they scrape and shuffle outside the door for editorial blessings…not unlike the search by the 2016 Republican hopefuls in Las Vegas for Adelson’s largesse.

– Paul Mutter is a foreign policy blogger on leave from the NYU Arthur L. Carter Institute of Journalism. He contributes to PBS Tehran Bureau, The Arabist, Mondoweiss, Truthout, Salon and Foreign Policy in Focus. He primarily writes about US foreign relations, Israeli politics and the Persian Gulf region.

Photo: Jewish American billionaire Sheldon Adelson, left, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, center, and Adelson’s wife, Miriam. Credit: Eyal Warshavsky