“I used to have a standing as a cartoon schlepper, now I’m only a former cartoon schlepper.”
This is how media mogul Haim Saban chose to describe himself when interviewing Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu Sunday afternoon. Needless to say, the self-deprecating description has little to do with reality.
The Israeli-American billionaire is one of Hillary and Bill Clinton’s largest and closest donors. So close he got to spend the night at the Lincoln bedroom in the White House when Bill was president. So close that he could pick up the phone and tell the presidential candidate to stop shouting after listening to her speeches on the campaign trail.
Over the weekend, Saban hosted in Washington the 13th annual policy conference carrying his name. The Saban Forum is a mostly closed-doored gathering where Israeli and American politicians, policymakers and opinion leaders get an opportunity to discuss the region’s future while schmoozing at a fancy hotel, a block from the White House. For Saban, this year should have been special - a chance for the man closest to the next president to usher in a new era of influence at the highest echelons of power.
Instead, the meeting took a somber tone. From the empty seats during the conference’s closing session, to the unmistakably disappointed tone used by Secretary of State John Kerry when discussing the future of the Middle East peace process. The Clintons, who had hardly ever missed a Saban gathering, were nowhere to be found.
“This could have been such a great celebration,” said a participant who has known Saban for many years. “Haim could have played a huge role on pro-Israel issues if Hillary won.”
His access to Clinton seems unparalleled. Wikileaks hack of Clinton’s campaign chairman’s emails reveals how Saban communicated directly with the candidate and her top advisers, providing his input on issues relating to Israel and to the Latino community (Saban is chairman of Univision, the largest Spanish language TV network in America.) Clinton and her advisers, the emails suggested, always responded, mostly positively, to Saban’s suggestions.
In the new reality facing Democrats, Saban, who has famously said he is a “one issue person and that issue is Israel,” has already found himself a new cause within the party. He is now determined to prevent the election of Keith Ellison to chair of the Democratic National Committee, an appointment Saban fears would signal a Democratic shift away from its pro-Israel stance.
“If you go back to his positions, his papers, his speeches, the way he has voted, he is clearly an anti-Semite, anti-Israel individual,” Saban said Friday night, offering his views during a question and answer session with Israeli defense minister Avigdor Lieberman. “Words matter and actions matter more. Keith Ellison would be a disaster for the relationship between the Jewish community and the Democratic Party.”
The comment may give some indication of Saban’s future role in Democratic politics. After more than two decades in which his involvement was based primarily on supporting Bill and Hillary Clinton, Saban may go back to focusing on his prime cause in politics - backing Democrats who share his pro-Israel positions and opposing those who do not.
Hawkish on issues relating to Israel’s security but an ardent supporter of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Saban could easily see during the weekend conference how his causes are under threat from both sides of the map. In his own political home, the Democratic Party, debate over Ellison’s views on Israel has raised once again the possibility that progressive Democrats, less committed to automatic support of Israel, will gain power and shape the party. And on the Republican side, hints being thrown out by the incoming president and his advisers have also been a source of concern to supporters of an American push for resolving the conflict. In one of the closed-door sessions at the Saban Forum, an adviser to Trump refused to fully embrace the two-state solution or to accept that it was the only option for resolving the conflict, according to two participants who attended the meeting.
Saban has proven his ability to adjust to political realities in the past. He was initially skeptical about President Obama’s approach to Israel, but eventually warmed up to him and contributed generously to Obama’s 2012 reelection campaign.
A person in close contact with Saban said the Los Angeles-based billionaire is not thinking yet of a new candidate he’d support for the 2020 election. “His only goal is to make sure the party stays pro-Israel,” he said.
Nathan Guttman staff writer, is the Forward’s Washington bureau chief. He joined the staff in 2006 after serving for five years as Washington correspondent for the Israeli dailies Ha’aretz and The Jerusalem Post. In Israel, he was the features editor for Ha’aretz and chief editor of Channel 1 TV evening news. He was born in Canada and grew up in Israel. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Contact Nathan at firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow him on Twitter @nathanguttman