Haim Saban and Sheldon Adelson / Getty Images
What do you get when you put two of the largest pro-Israel donors — Sheldon Adelson and Haim Saban — on one stage?
For participants at the Israeli American Council’s inaugural conference, this meeting of Jewish finance titans produced several historical insights about the roots of the Palestinian people (Adelson: they have none); a bit of advice on how to deal with Iran (Saban: “bomb the sons of bitches”); and some media criticism (Adelson: “I don’t like journalism” — especially not the Forward.)
Adelson and Saban, one a mega donor to the Republican Party, the other a top backer of the Clintons, may have their differences when it comes to U.S. politics. But on Israel, both engaged in one-upmanship, trying to outdo each other’s hawkishness.
When discussing a possible nuclear deal with Iran, which is now being negotiated between Iran and several international powers, both expressed skepticism. Adelson said that if the deal does not satisfy Israel, then putting himself in the shoes of Israel’s prime minister, he “would not just talk. I would take action.”
But Saban went further. “A stick and a carrot, yes — but I think that we showed too many carrots and a very small stick,” he said of the Obama administration negotiators.
And what would he do if he were Benjamin Netanyahu facing an unsatisfactory deal? “I would act,” the Los Angeles-based media magnate said. “I would bomb the daylight out of these sons of bitches.”
Adelson quickly caught up when the discussion turned to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He provided the audience with a lengthy historical lecture, arguing that the Palestinians have no history in the region and that, as his protégé Newt Gingrich has said, they are in fact “an invented people.”
The casino owner suggested building a “big wall” around Israel, but later would not explain whether by advocating this, he was expressing support for unilateral Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank.
Saban, who declared he fully agreed with Adelson’s historical analysis, argued that he still believes in a two-state solution because that is the only way of maintaining Israel’s Jewish and democratic identity. But how important is that? Adelson, as it turns out, doesn’t think that’s a real problem.
“I don’t think the Bible says anything about democracy. I think God didn’t say anything about democracy,” Adelson said. “God talked about all the good things in life. He didn’t talk about Israel remaining as a democratic state, otherwise Israel isn’t going to be a democratic state — so what?”
The two Jewish philanthropists pondered how to save Israel from the local and international media that are biased against it. They suggested solving the problem by opening their pocketbooks. “Why don’t you and I go after The New York Times?” Adelson joked with Saban, later explaining that the only way to do so is by offering “significantly more than it’s worth” and thus having shareholders sue the owners if they don’t accept the offer. Saban, apparently, already tried something similar. He attempted to purchase the Washington Post, but failed. The paper was sold last year to Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, for $250 million, or as Saban described it, “bupkis.”
Adelson, who admitted at the opening of the discussion that he does not like journalism, later took issue with the Forward reporter — yours truly — who spoke on an earlier panel discussion about the media. “You heard what this guy Guttman said here today,” Adelson told the audience. “He said ‘we look for the wrong, to tell the people what’s wrong in life. Are they insane from that? Yeah, they’re mad.’ That’s not professional journalism.”
This statement, attributed to me by Adelson, was never uttered during the panel discussion.
Adelson is IAC’s largest donor. He recently came in as a funder with more than $2.5 million. Saban has been supportive of the group for years, but Adelson’s contributions dwarfed his.
The perspective offered by the two funders to conference participants was in line with the general spirit of the event. The conference, taking place from Friday to Sunday at the Washington Hilton, highlighted speakers critical of the Obama administration. Mitt Romney, the former presidential candidate, was the featured keynote speaker on the opening night, attacking Obama on his Iran policy. Former independent senator Joe Lieberman also delivered gibes at the president, and Senator Lindsey Graham, who spoke at the second night gala dinner, promised to use his position in Congress to block a deal with Iran if Israel does not accept it.
Organizers insisted time and again that IAC is not a partisan organization.
Saban and Adelson, both supportive of the IAC and of other pro-Israel causes, take different routes when it comes to their political giving. Saban is invested in the prospect of Hillary Clinton taking over the White House, while Adelson is expected to generously support at least one Republican candidate. One of them will get the VIP treatment at the White House after the 2016 elections.
Adelson made sure the audience knew what he’d like to see in the next White House. He recalled that last time he visited 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, during the Hanukkah reception in the Bush administration, “they ran out of potato latkes.” The next president, he hopes, will have sufficient latkes for all.
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.