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Trump used the debate to court a major Israeli-American donor. Palestinians will pay the price

The former president wants Miriam Adelson to make good on a promised donation — and he made sure the whole country knows 

If you had trouble understanding former President Donald Trump’s answers to questions about Israel’s war with Hamas in his debate with President Joe Biden, that’s for a good reason: He wasn’t talking to you.

The audience for his answers wasn’t viewers, Israelis or the Palestinians, and certainly not the moderators. 

It was Dr. Miriam Adelson.

In May, the Israeli-born widow of casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, pledged $90 million to Trump’s campaign, through the Preserve America super PAC. 

But she hasn’t yet given over the vast majority of the funds. And Trump’s quest to get her to sign the money over might have dire consequences for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, encouraging further Israeli encroachment in the occupied West Bank and imperiling prospects for a Palestinian state. 

Adelson hasn’t given interviews lately, but according to those who know her, she is a one-issue donor, and that issue is Israel. Her views on Israel are aligned with those of the Israeli right and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. In 2019, she wrote in Israel Hayom, the Israeli news outlet she owns, that she does not believe in “the useless mold of the so-called peace process.” 

“Do I believe that Miriam supports the creation of a Palestinian state? Absolutely not,” her friend Rabbi Shmuely Boteach told The New York Times.

David M. Friedman, Trump’s former ambassador to Israel, was quoted in the same article saying: “I’m pretty sure that her North Star going forward is going to be what she thinks Sheldon would have done if he were still alive.” And what Sheldon Adelson did was withhold an expected $100 million contribution to Trump in 2016 — until he made sure that Trump’s views on Israel aligned with his own. 

His widow, the world’s richest Israeli and the fifth-richest woman in America, is following the same playbook.

That’s why Trump all but ignored CNN moderator Dana Bash when she asked Trump and Biden, “What additional leverage will you use to get Hamas and Israel to end the war?”

Biden said he would continue to push the ceasefire deal Hamas rejected, while limiting Israel’s access to two-ton bombs and supporting Israel against Iranian attacks. 

Trump, in a much less direct answer, talked extensively about the war in Ukraine, then added about Israel: “You should let them go and let them finish the job.” Pointing to Biden, Trump said, “He doesn’t want to do it. He has become like a Palestinian. But, they don’t like him because he is a very bad Palestinian. He is a weak one.”

The run-on answer sent a clear message to Adelson. Trump will support Netanyahu and Israel in taking whatever course of action they like in the war, no questions asked.

To be clear, Adelson is doing nothing wrong. As campaign finance law allows, she’s putting her money where her heart is — or rather, promising to, and seeing if Trump falls in line. And she is not alone.

The same day Trump was convicted on 34 felony counts, banking heir Tom Mellon gave him $50 million. At a private meeting with oil industry executives, Trump reportedly asked them to give him $1 billion. News flash: Big money rules American politics.

After her husband’s death, Dr. Adelson said she was going to pull back from politics because she found it too divisive. But then came Oct. 7, which, she wrote in Israel Hayom, made her feel “suddenly 16 again, raptly listening to radio reports on the Eichmann trial and taking in the graphic accounts of Nazi mass-murder.”

Trump himself has previously criticized the Israeli prosecution of the war, saying Israel should bring its actions in Gaza to an end. 

“You have to finish up your war,” he said in an interview with Israel Hayom that Adelson arranged. “You have to finish it up. You got it done. And I’m sure you’ll do that. And we got to get to peace.”

In May, before Adelson made her announcement, Trump’s campaign coffers had fallen close to $40 million behind Biden’s — a dire situation. 

Trump’s fundraising has recently outpaced Biden’s. And on Thursday night’s debate stage, the former president took every opportunity to make sure to secure  the most lucrative donation he’s likely to pull in during this campaign.

So when Dana Bash asked Trump, “Would you support the creation of an independent Palestinian state in order to achieve peace in the region?” he responded noncommittally: “I’d have to see,” he said, before pivoting to a diatribe on U.S.-European trade.

In his first term, Trump ticked off a lot of Netanyahu’s boxes, which not coincidentally topped the Adelsons’ agenda as well. Acknowledge Israel’s annexation of the Golan Heights? Check. Move the American embassy to Jerusalem? Check. Circumvent the Palestinians to make agreements with Gulf states? Check, check, check.

The only thing left on Netanyahu’s wishlist is American support for Israel’s annexation of the West Bank — something incompatible with a peace process or Palestinian autonomy. Trump surely knew what he was doing by brushing off Bash’s question: Showing Adelson, and Netanyahu, that he won’t rush to join the increasing number of countries recognizing Palestine as a state. Signaling that the No. 1 item on their wishlist is something he is probably willing to grant.

Adelson has also gone on the record against college students and others protesting against Israel. In Israel Hayom, she called them “ghastly gatherings of radical Muslim and BLM activists, ultra-progressives, and career agitators.”

And, like clockwork, Trump threatened twice in the debate to bring in the National Guard in cases of civil protest, and once referred to “Palestinians and everyone else rioting” in Biden’s America. 

The comment echoed what he said at a donor event May 14, according to The Washington Post.

“One thing I do is, any student that protests,” he said, “I throw them out of the country. You know, there are a lot of foreign students. As soon as they hear that, they’re going to behave. If you get me elected, we’re going to set that movement back 25 or 30 years.” 

Trump did say during the debate that if he were president, Hamas wouldn’t have attacked. That kind of bluster about the imaginary past likely impressed Adelson less than what he said, or implied, about the future: No Palestinian state — meaning no peace negotiations, no brakes on Netanyahu, and no quarter to protesters. 

We’ll see in coming days if he hit his mark. In the meantime, I wonder: Were the so-called progressives who have sworn to oppose Biden‘s reelection campaign over his support of Israel listening as well?

If they refuse to vote for Biden because they oppose his handling of the Gaza war, they will help hand the election to Trump. Who, judging by his debate answers, will deliver on Adelson’s vision — a much worse outcome for Palestinians.

“All we care about is being good Zionists, being good citizens of Israel,” Sheldon Adelson said of he and his wife at an Israel-American Council conference in 2014, “I don’t think the Bible says anything about democracy.”

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