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Saban, Haim

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Haim Saban is a media mogul who is known for his backing of Democratic Party political candidates as well as for his hardline “pro-Israel” views and opposition to the Iran nuclear deal.

Saban made his fortune as a producer of theme songs for television shows and then broke through with his children’s television franchise, called Power Rangers. In the 1990s, he developed a rapport with Bill and Hillary Clinton and increased his political activism. Although his politics has generally hewed close to Democratic Party lines, he has consistently made it clear that his main issue was support for Israel, famously saying, “I’m a one-issue guy and my issue is Israel.”[1] Over the years, his views on Israel drifter increasingly right, mirroring developments in Israel itself.[2]

In June 2018, Saban sent a letter[3] to a group of Democratic senators led by Sen. Bernie Sanders who had drafted a letter expressing their concern over the humanitarian situation and ongoing violence in the Gaza Strip. Although the senators’ letter[4] pointed out that Israel bears responsibility for its siege on Gaza, it did not place much blame on Israel for the crisis. Yet Saban pleaded in his letter,“Senators, for you to listen to Senator Sanders and accuse Israel of being the main culprit is outrageous, misinformed, offensive and shows a lack of understanding of the region’s basic fundamentals. Do your homework, unless you have chosen to blindly follow Senator Sanders’ ill advised, misinformed, simplistic, and ignorant lead.”

Responding to Saban’s letter, The Interceptquoted Yousef Munayyer, executive director of the U.S. Campaign for Palestinian Rights, saying: “As this condescending letter attacking several leading Senate Democrats shows, Saban is, as he once described himself, a ‘one issue guy’ and ‘that issue is Israel. … The tone sounds less like a sincere attempt to convince anyone and more like the bitter ramblings of a political investor who knows the base of the party he has long supported is uninterested in backing Israel’s heinous human rights abuses anymore.”[5]

On President Donald Trump

Saban has never expressed regret for backing Hillary Clinton’s failed presidential campaigns. But he has softened his tone over time on her opponent, Donald Trump.

During the campaign, Saban was unsparing in his criticism of Trump. In May 2016, Saban said, ““Donald Trump is a disaster. He is a bully who doesn’t have the curiosity to understand the issues; he contradicts himself repeatedly; his views of the world are an unmitigated disaster for America and for the American people, and I believe that all of this will become clearer with time.”

He expressed strong concern about how Trump would approach U.S. policy toward Israel, stating, “One day he says he’s going to be neutral on the issue of the Israeli-Palestinian problem, and the next day—I guess after he gets some Republicans to give him a lot of money—he says, ‘Yes, Israel should build in the settlements.’ The danger here is that he doesn’t understand the conflict between those two statements; he just doesn’t get it. He is an improviser on every single issue. There is not one issue that he has studied enough to be able to speak about it in a way that makes sense. And then he goes back on everything he says: One day, he says he’s gonna block the Muslims, and the next day he says, ‘Well it was just a suggestion.’ What a candidate says. …these words carry weight. We cannot just dismiss the fact that he keeps contradicting himself. We don’t know what he stands for.”[6]

In March 2017, Saban sharply criticized Trump’s immigration policies. “I’m heartbroken [at] the breaking up of families, the way it’s happening right now,” he told AFP. “It’s a very saddening thing, it’s not who we are as Americans. We are not that.”[7]

Overall, Saban has been quiet during Trump’s presidency. But he did participate in an event in Washington celebrating Trump’s highly controversial move of the U.S. embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.[8] More notably, when Trump came under fire for his reaction to a white supremacist march in Charlottesville, Virginia in the summer of 2017, Saban defended him. “I disagree with the president with what appears to be a moral equivalence being drawn between the Nazis, who are shouting, ‘Kill the Jews,’ and the protesters who came to counter that statement,” Saban told the Hollywood Reporter. But, he continued, “I do not believe that President Trump is a Nazi or anti-Semite.”

The Democrats’ Adelson

Like Republican mega-donor, Sheldon Adelson, Saban donates a lot of money to Democratic candidates and PACs. During the 2016 election cycle, Saban donated nearly $14 million, including over $12 million to presidential candidate Hillary Clinton’s SuperPAC.[9]

Adelson’s political contributions dwarf Saban’s—Adelson donated nearly $78 million for the 2016 election cycle, for example, well over five times Saban’s contributions—but Saban’s contributions are large enough to give him some sway over U.S. policy toward Israel.[10]

Like Adelson, his laser focus makes his large contributions more impactful. Unlike Adelson—whose sizable contributions bring Republican candidates to him to plead for his largesse—Saban has cultivated key relationships with leading Democrats. The Clintons are close to Saban, and the relationship stretches back to the days of Bill Clinton’s presidency.

According to The New Yorker, “When Bill Clinton was President and Ehud Barak was Israel’s Prime Minister, Saban, who was close to both men, says that occasionally he provided a back channel for communications. In July of 2000, shortly before the start of the Camp David negotiations, Israel’s planned two-hundred-and-fifty-million-dollar sale of an airborne radar system to China—furiously opposed by many at the Pentagon and in Congress—threatened to derail congressional support for a peace deal. Saban said, ‘I just called Ehud and told him, ‘In the middle of this peace thing, it’s impossible for Israel to do things that are perceived in the U.S. as against the interests of the U.S. I understand the financial aspect, I understand that it may not be really a security concern for the U.S.—it doesn’t matter. There’s a much bigger picture here, and you really should seriously consider.”’ Barak suspended the sale.”[11]

But as pleased as Saban might have been with Bill Clinton, he was much less enamored of Barack Obama. He strongly supported Hillary Clinton in the 2008 election and his view of Obama only declined during the years Obama was in office.

A close adviser told The New Yorkerthat Saban “certainly isn’t happy about Obama’s [performance],” and Saban said that “Bill Clinton somehow managed to be revered and adored by both the Palestinians and the Israelis. Obama has managed to be looked at suspiciously by both.”[12]

Saban opposed the 2015 nuclear deal between the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, plus Germany (P5+1), and Iran. During negotiations, Saban sounded the alarm, saying that if Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu assesses the deal to be a bad one, “I would bomb the living daylights out of these sons of bitches.” He went on to criticize the Obama administration’s negotiating tactics, saying, “We’ve shown too many carrots and a very small stick.”[13]

In 2015, with Hillary Clinton—who had laid much of the groundwork for the nuclear deal in her role as Secretary of State in Obama’s first term—seeking the presidency, Saban reinforced his opposition to the deal but modified his tone somewhat. “I do believe that the deal is far from perfect,” Saban wrote. “And ‘must fight it’ is an option for the opponents to the deal. But that is not the issue at this point in time, because I believe the deal is now a fait accompli. Therefore, the United States and Israel, as staunch allies, should focus on the day after and cooperate to make sure that Iran never acquires

nuclear weapons.”[14]

Saban strongly opposed Rep. Keith Ellison’s (D-MN) bid to lead the Democratic National Committee, saying “If you go back to his positions, his papers, his speeches, the way he has voted, he is clearly an anti-Semite and anti-Israel individual. Words matter, and actions matter more. Keith Ellison would be a disaster for the relationship between the Jewish community and the Democratic Party.”[15]

Support for Hillary Clinton

Saban’s presence in Hillary Clinton’s campaigns for the White House in 2008 and 2016 was tangible.

In 2008, before the landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision in Citizens United vs. FECloosened campaign finance limits, Saban held huge fundraisers backing Clinton in her failed campaign for the Democratic nomination. Saban was known as a tireless and very effective fundraiser for Clinton. According to one report, “Clinton is running only slightly ahead of Obama in money from lawyers, and she’s trailing in donations from teachers, according to data from the Center for Responsive Politics. In the entertainment industry, though, she’s outgunning her rival by about 22%. Much of that can be attributed to Saban, who by early May had raised $1 million for Clinton, the most by any individual fundraiser. Call it the Haim effect.”[16]

Saban was also one of the most prominent signatories on a letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) warning her to back off her call for superdelegates to support the popular choice for the 2008 democratic presidential nominee. Clinton was, at that time, trailing Barack Obama in pledged delegates and her only realistic hope was that superdelegates would back her. At first it had seemed like this could happen, but more and more superdelegates were saying that they agreed that they should support the popular choice. Pelosi had made a statement expressing that view.

Saban and other prominent Democratic donors responded, writing, “Superdelegates, like all delegates, have an obligation to make an informed, individual decision about whom to support and who would be the party’s strongest nominee. Both campaigns agree that at the end of the primary contests neither will have enough pledged delegates to secure the nomination. In that situation, superdelegates must look to not one criterion but to the full panoply of factors that will help them assess who will be the party’s strongest nominee in the general election.” They made this case after pointedly identifying themselves as “strong supporters of the DCCC,” implying a threat to future contributions.[17]

In 2016, with limits on campaign contributions raised much looser, Saban’s influence was more prominent, not only in his donations but in his policy stances.

During the campaign, as Hillary Clinton was working to fend off a surprisingly strong challenge for the nomination from Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) she adopted a more hawkish stance on foreign policy issues. Notably, rather than using the Iran nuclear deal—which she had worked to lay the groundwork for during her time as Barack Obama’s Secretary of State—as a selling point for her foreign policy acumen, she attacked Sanders for what she called his desire to “aggressively normalize relations and to move to warm relations with Iran.”

Journalist Eli Clifton speculated that Saban may have been a major reason for this strategic shift from Clinton. “Clinton megadonor Haim Saban may be one explanation for the tilt toward hawkish positions,” wrote Clifton. “Between 2008 and 2013, his family foundation contributed over $8 million to the Clinton presidential foundation in Little Rock, Arkansas, and gave $5 million to the American Israel Education Foundation, the AIPAC fundraising arm that arranges congressional junkets to Israel. AIPAC spent an estimated $30 million opposing the Iran nuclear deal. Saban also contributed $5-10 million to the William J. Clinton Foundation and $1 million to Priorities USA Action, a super PAC supporting Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign.”[18]

In July 2015, Clinton wrote an open letter to Saban condemning the Palestinian movement which called for instituting boycotts, divestment, and sanctions against Israel (BDS) until it ends its occupation of Palestinian lands, grants full equal rights to Palestinian citizens of Israel, and recognizes the right of return of Palestinian refugees. In the letter, Clinton even implied a comparison between BDS and an ISIS-inspired attack on Jewish shops in Paris in early 2015. She wrote, “As you know, BDS seeks to punish Israel and dictate how the Israelis and Palestinians should resolve the core issues of their conflict. This is not the path to peace. …I am also very concerned by attempts to compare Israel to South African apartheid. Israel is a vibrant democracy in a region dominated by autocracy, and it faces existential threats to its survival. Particularly at a time when anti-Semitism is on the rise across the world especially in Europe – we need to repudiate forceful efforts to malign and undermine Israel and the Jewish people. After all, it was only six months ago that four Jews were targeted and killed in a Kosher supermarket in Paris as they did their Sabbath shopping.”[19]

In a June 2016 article, Eli Clifton pointed out that Saban was a supporter of both the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee(AIPAC) and the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America (CAMERA). AIPAC advocates for right-wing Israeli positions, while CAMERA is a media watchdog that aggressively defends hawkish Israeli positions and reacts strongly to any criticism of Israel.

Wrote Clifton, “Two things are clear about Haim Saban and his financial contributions. First, he is a dedicated opponent of the White House’s handling of the Iran nuclear deal and unafraid to invest his money in groups that launched ad hominem attacks on Obama as part of their efforts to scuttle the deal and played a role in circulating the debunked justifications for the invasion of Iraq. Second, his investment in Clinton’s candidacy indicates that he is far more comfortable in the foreign policy positions he believes she would pursue as president. Currently, her public pronouncements differ little from the White House, leaving an open question about what messages Saban has received in private.”[20]

The Saban Center

In 2012, Saban donated $13 million to the Brookings Institution to open the Saban Center for Middle East Policy, although his name was later removed. He explained his rationale for the setting up the Center, saying, “I’ve heard

from leaders on both sides of the aisle in the United States and leaders in Europe about what Sharon shouldn’t do. I haven’t heard one educated

suggestion about what he should do.”[21]

Although Saban’s name is no longer on the Center’s masthead, the Center still hosts the annual Saban Forum, described as “an annual dialogue between American and Israeli leaders from across the political and social spectrum.” [22]

The Center’s orientation is centrist and spans center-left and center-right views. As of 2016, Saban continued to be a major donor to Brookings. He was listed among donors giving $500,000-$999,999 in their donors list.[23]

[1] Andrew Ross Sorkin, “Schlepping to Moguldom,” New York Times, September 5, 2004, https://www.nytimes.com/2004/09/05/business/yourmoney/schlepping-to-moguldom.html

[2] Andy Kroll, “The Billionaire Creator of the Power Rangers Has Invested Millions in Hillary Clinton. So What Does He Want?” Mother Jones, November/December 2016, https://www.motherjones.com/politics/2016/10/haim-saban-power-rangers-hillary-clinton-top-donor/

[3] Haim Saban, email to group of U.S. senators, June 19, 2018, https://www.documentcloud.org/documents/4525439-Haim-Saban-s-Letter-to-Bernie-Sanders-et-al-on.html

[4] U.S. Senate letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, May 11, 2018,https://www.sanders.senate.gov/download/gaza-letter?inline=file

[5] Alex Emmons, “Democratic Megadonor Haim Saban Attacks Senators for Urging Humanitarian Aid to Gaza Strip,” The Intercept, June 20, 2018, https://theintercept.com/2018/06/20/haim-saban-bernie-sanders-israel-gaza-letter/

[6] Danielle Berrin, “Haim Saban’s confidence in Hillary Clinton,” Jewish Journal, June 1, 2016, http://jewishjournal.com/opinion/185987/haim-sabans-confidence-in-hillary-clinton/

[7] AFP, “‘Power Rangers’ creator Saban hits out at Trump,” Times of Israel, March 23, 2017, https://www.timesofisrael.com/power-rangers-creator-saban-hits-out-at-trump/

[8] Lieba Nesis, “DC Embassy Holds Massive Celebration for Israel’s 70th Anniversary & US Embassy Move to Jerusalem,” Jewish Voice, May 16, 2018, http://thejewishvoice.com/2018/05/16/dc-embassy-holds-massive-celebration-israels-70th-anniversary-us-embassy-move-jerusalem/

[9] “Saban, Haim & Cheryl: Donor Detail,” Open Secrets, https://www.opensecrets.org/outsidespending/donor_detail.php?cycle=2016&id=U0000000380&type=I&super=N&name=Saban%2C+Haim+%26+Cheryl

[10] Open Secrets, “Top Individual Contributors: All Federal Contributions, 2016” https://www.opensecrets.org/overview/topindivs.php?cycle=2016&view=fc

[11] Connie Bruch, “The Influencer,” The New Yorker, May 10, 2010, https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2010/05/10/the-influencer

[12] Connie Bruch, “The Influencer,” The New Yorker, May 10, 2010, https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2010/05/10/the-influencer

[13]“Haim Saban slams Obama’s Iran policy, advises bombing in worst case,” Jewish Telegraphic Agency, November 9, 2014, https://www.jta.org/2014/11/09/news-opinion/politics/saban-slams-obamas-iran-policy-advises-bombing-in-worst-case

[14] Julie Hirschfield Davis, “Top Hillary Clinton Donor Clarifies Stance on Iran Nuclear Deal,” New York Times, August 13, 2015, https://www.nytimes.com/politics/first-draft/2015/08/13/top-hillary-clinton-donor-clarifies-stance-on-iran-nuclear-deal/

[15] Eugene Scott, “Haim Saban: Keith Ellison ‘is clearly an anti-Semite and anti-Israel individual,’” CNN, December 3, 2016, https://edition.cnn.com/2016/12/03/politics/haim-saban-keith-ellison-anti-semite/

[16] Stephanie N. Mehta, “The man with the golden gut,” CNN Money, May 1, 2007, https://money.cnn.com/magazines/fortune/fortune_archive/2007/05/14/100009182/index.htm

[17] Jewish Telegraphic Agency, “Jewish Clinton backers warn Pelosi on meddling,” Wayback Machine, March 28, 2008, https://web.archive.org/web/20080331232618/http://www.jta.org/cgi-bin/iowa/breaking/107769.html

[18] Eli Clifton, “Clinton Campaign Recycles Hawkish Foreign Policy Positions,” Lobelog, January 22, 2016,https://lobelog.com/clinton-campaign-recycles-hawkish-foreign-policy-positions/

[19] Hillary Clinton, “Hillary Clinton’s Letter to Haim Saban Against BDS,” Document Cloud, July 2, 2015, https://www.documentcloud.org/documents/2158218-hillary-clintons-letter-to-haim-saban-against-bds.html

[20] Eli Clifton, “Will Clinton Follow The Money On Foreign Policy?” Lobelog, June 30, 2016 https://lobelog.com/will-clinton-follow-the-money-on-foreign-policy/

[21] Andrew Ross Sorkin, “Schlepping to Moguldom,” New York Times, September 5, 2004, https://www.nytimes.com/2004/09/05/business/yourmoney/schlepping-to-moguldom.html

[22] Brookings, “About the Center for Middle East Policy,” https://www.brookings.edu/about-the-center-for-middle-east-policy/

[23] Brookings, “The Brookings Institution’s Contributors List,” July 2016, https://www.brookings.edu/wp-content/uploads/2016/07/The-Brookings-Institutions-Contributors-List-Fiscal-Year-2016.pdf

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