It was supposed to serve as the ultimate proof that the love of Israel can bridge even the deepest political divide.
It included Sheldon Adelson, the Republican Party’s mega-funder and, in some eyes, its kingmaker, and Haim Saban, a close ally and top donor of Bill Clinton and Hillary Rodham Clinton, joining forces and putting aside politics to fight together against attempts to isolate Israel.
“When it comes to Israel, we are absolutely on the same page,” Saban declared, sitting next to a smiling Adelson in a joint TV interview. “When it comes to this, there is no light between us at all.”
Three months later, this bipartisan idyllic picture is all but shattered.
Saban, quietly and unannounced, has pulled out of the major anti-BDS initiative he helped launch with Adelson and has also minimized his role in an Israeli-American organization where both billionaires had been deeply involved. No reason was given for the move, but Jewish activists involved in these initiatives say that at the end of the day it was politics that drove apart the two magnates.
“He didn’t like that Adelson was pushing the group towards funding right-wing groups that are only speaking in a right-wing echo chamber — and not towards pushing a message that would actually change hearts and minds,” said an official with a Jewish organization involved in the initiative to counter the movement on college campuses to boycott, divest from and sanction Israel.
“I can assure you that Haim Saban had no objections to our plans for the Maccabees. Whoever claims otherwise simply has no idea what they’re talking about. Instead of chasing the rumors of the uninformed, please just stay calm and watch what we do,” said David Brog, director of the Maccabees initiative.
A spokesman for the Los Angeles-based entertainment billionaire said in a statement that “Haim Saban is focused on a range of philanthropic activities to promote pro-Israel advocacy and tackle efforts to delegitimize Israel.” Among these activities is the Saban Leadership Seminar, which has trained nearly 10,000 pro-Israel student leaders. “In the near term,” the statement continued, “Mr. Saban is also concentrating on the Friends of the IDF and the Saban Forum, both of which have major events in the next few months.”
The head of the new initiative disputed the charge that politics played a role here. “I can assure you that Haim Saban had no objections to our plans for the Maccabees. Whoever claims otherwise simply has no idea what they’re talking about. Instead of chasing the rumors of the uninformed, please just stay calm and watch what we do,” said David Brog, director of the Maccabees initiative.
Saban declined to address questions from the Forward directly.
Born in Egypt and raised in Israel, Saban made his fortune in Hollywood as a children’s cartoon entrepreneur. He has since expanded his business empire and has become a household name in Democratic politics, thanks to his persistent support for the Clintons. Through the years, Saban has contributed an estimated $30 million to their political campaigns and has become a close friend of the ultimate power couple. The Clintons are frequent guests at his annual Saban Forum, which meets in Washington to discuss U.S.-Israel relations.
Saban is a major donor of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and of Friends of the Israel Defense Forces. Until recently, he was the key funder of the Israeli American Council, which was founded to organize Israeli expatriates living in the United States.
Saban’s involvement in the IAC forged his first major partnership with Adelson, the Las Vegas casino mogul who in recent years has established his standing as one of the Republican Party’s single largest donors. A couple of years ago, Adelson began funding IAC (which was initially named the Israel Leadership Council), and alongside Saban he helped relaunch the group as a national organization.
Last November, at the conclusion of the group’s first national conference, held in Washington, Adelson and Saban shared the stage for an hour-long discussion that revealed similar hawkish views regarding Israel and the Middle East and a fair amount of personal amity.
This bipartisan partnership was taken to a new level when the two businessmen, alongside Israeli-American real estate developer Adam Milstein, joined forces in the June launch of an ambitious effort to counter BDS efforts on college campuses, dubbed at the time the Campus Maccabees.
In a joint interview from Las Vegas with Israel’s Channel 2 TV, Adelson suggested that he and Saban use their influence, each in his own party, to advance the cause of Israel. ”Our interest is to take care of Israel’s interests in the United States. Period, over and out,” Saban added.
The conference ended with a pledge to raise massive amounts of cash, as high as $50 million according to some accounts, for anti-BDS programming on campus. The group appointed Brog to run the new operation and began reaching out to Jewish groups active on the issue.
Several activists involved in campus work confirmed that Saban had been a key player in the group’s work in the months that followed the Vegas conference.
A spokesman for Saban insisted that he was never a funder of the group and that while he supports the goal of fighting BDS, he was not part of the Maccabees initiative. Yet a press release issued by the group in June named Saban along with his wife, Cheryl Saban, as the philanthropist who “led” the conference, alongside Adelson and Milstein.
Now, however, this partnership is clearly over.
Jewish officials offered several explanations for Saban’s decision not to be associated with the Maccabees initiative. One noted that the hiring of Brog — who previously ran Christians United for Israel, led by the conservative evangelical pastor John Hagee — was among the key reasons that Saban withdrew. Officials involved in the initiative rejected this explanation, noting that Saban and Brog had been in regular contact until several weeks ago.
Another said that Saban was dismayed by the choice of programs the initiative is about to fund, which was skewed to the right. Here, too, Jewish activists involved with the Maccabees operation argue that Saban did not express any concerns regarding the choice of programs and organizations the initiative intended to support.
A Jewish political insider suggested that Saban chose to disassociate himself from the group because of Adelson’s strong rhetoric against Democrats and the concern that as elections approach, he would not be able to maintain a partnership with Adelson while closely supporting Clinton.
While Saban’s withdrawal from the campus operation may not make a big difference in terms of funding, given Adelson’s ability to provide huge sums of money to his favorite causes, it could hurt Brog’s efforts to put a bipartisan face on the initiative.
The group hopes that once it formally rolls out its plan of action later this month and presents its board, critics will be convinced that it is an apolitical organization situated within the Jewish community’s mainstream.
Saban is also quietly bowing out from the IAC, another initiative he had shared with Adelson. A source close to Saban confirmed that he has become “less involved” in the organization that he helped found.
Saban’s donations to the IAC have been overshadowed by Adelson, who poured upward of $10 million into the organization last year. As it grew in size and spread out nationally, the IAC, which describes itself as apolitical, began speaking out on controversial issues relating to Israel and recently called on its members to support the initiative to defeat the nuclear deal with Iran in Congress. Saban had distanced himself from this political battle, saying that the Iran agreement, though flawed, should be viewed as a done deal.
“The IAC is very proud that Haim Saban has been a champion and major supporter of our organization since its inception,” Milstein said in an email. “We look forward to continuing our work with him.”
The IAC will hold its second Washington conference in mid-October. Saban, a source close to him said, will not attend.
Contact Nathan Guttman at email@example.com or on Twitter,@nathanguttman
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 Haaretz 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.