Sheldon Adelson, a casino magnate, perennial top single donor to Donald Trump and other Republican causes and an influential opponent of a two-state solution in the Middle East, has died. He was 87.
Adelson’s influence on Trump has been seen as a major factor in the president’s assertive foreign policy on Israel, including his decision to declare Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, a deeply controversial move as parts of the city are also claimed by Palestinians.
In a statement on Tuesday Adelson’s wife, Dr Miriam Adelson, said the Las Vegas Sands chairman and chief executive died “of complications from a long illness”. A Nevada newspaper Adelson owned reported the cause of death as non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, which Adelson was found to have in 2019.
“It is with unbearable pain that I announce the death of my husband, Sheldon G Adelson,” Miriam Adelson said.
Adelson was born in 1933 and grew up in a suburb of Boston, his father a cab driver of Ukrainian Jewish and Lithuanian Jewish ancestry.
As the owner of the giant Venetian and Palazzo casino-resorts in Las Vegas, the Venetian Macau in China and the Marina Bay Sands in Singapore, he was among the richest men in the world, with a net worth pegged by Forbes at more than $33bn.
In the 2020 election, the Adelsons set a new record for political gifts from individuals, flooding the Trump campaign, related accounts and many lesser Republican campaigns with a total of $172.7m, according to the campaign finance site Open Secrets.
The Adelsons were the top donors in every major election cycle going back a decade except for 2016, and their lifetime political giving amounted to about half a billion dollars, Open Secrets said.
In a statement on Tuesday, Trump said Adelson “lived the true American dream”. The president also recognised Adelson’s role in the embassy move and US recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the disputed Golan Heights, another hugely controversial issue.
The former president George W Bush said: “Laura and I mourn the passing of a friend.”
An enemy of union organizing inside his casinos, Adelson was a veteran of bruising negotiations with, and criticism from, union political machines in Las Vegas and elsewhere, a conflict seen as fueling his support for anti-union Republican politicians.
In 2015, as part of a wrongful dismissal suit brought by an employee, Adelson spent four days in court defending his gambling empire from accusations of bribery and ties to organised crime in China.
Initially skeptical of Trump, whom he knew as a failed casino entrepreneur, Adelson was slow to enter the 2016 election. Since the early 2000s, he had prioritized giving to candidates who opposed Palestinian statehood, and it was not initially clear where Trump stood on Israel.
But Adelson and Trump’s priorities connected in Trump family connections, through the president’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, to the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, whom Adelson had long supported.
Adelson was adored across much of the political spectrum in Israel for his wide-ranging support to many Jewish and also Zionist organisations.
In particular, he was praised by hardline nationalists, in part due to his financial support for Jewish settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories, which are considered illegal by most world powers. One medical school in a settlement in the occupied West Bank is named after the Adelsons.
The billionaire’s death was mourned by several far-right Israeli politicians, including Naftali Bennett, a former defense minister, who said Adelson would be “forever be recorded in the annals in the State of Israel”.
Local media reported Adelson’s funeral would be held in Israel.
Israel’s current and longest-serving prime minister, Netanyahu, has also been a key beneficiary of Adelson, who launched a free newspaper called Israel Hayom in 2007 that was clearly supportive of the Israeli leader. The paper has since become the country’s most widely circulated daily.
Netanyahu said he felt “deep sorrow and heartbreak” on hearing of Adelson’s death. The news will be a blow to the prime minister, who is facing an election in late March, although Adelson’s wife has long been seen as a leading figure in family decisions on Israel.
“Along with his wife Miri, Sheldon was one of the greatest contributors in history to the Jewish people, Zionism, settlements and the state of Israel,” Netanyahu said, using Miriam’s nickname.
In 2018, Trump gave Miriam Adelson the highest US civilian honor, the presidential medal of freedom – alongside Elvis Presley and Babe Ruth.
In her statement on Tuesday, she called her husband “an American patriot: a US army veteran who gave generously to wounded warriors and, wherever he could, looked to the advancement of these great United States”.
“He was the proudest of Jews,” she said, adding that he “saw in the state of Israel not only the realization of an historical promise to a unique and deserving people, but also a gift from the Almighty to all of humanity.”
While Adelson changed American politics with his money, equipping thousands of local Republican campaigns with the resources, messaging and structure to win, his sympathy for Trump ended with the president’s re-election defeat last November.
In 2015, Adelson acquired the Las Vegas Review-Journal in a secret bid, after the newspaper published exposés about his empire. Last November, the paper rejected Trump’s effort to deny his loss to Joe Biden in Nevada, urging Trump to accept the result.