The business of influence
Let's go back to Israel - do you see yourself returning?
"I could say I am contributing far more to Israel being here. But with you I must tell the truth. And the truth is that I have it good here. I love my life here. I really enjoy it."
You don't live in Israel, but you invest in Israel. Will your next investment be in the daily paper Ma'ariv?
"The press is a problematic profession."
You're telling me? But it's an alluring profession.
"That's true. The problem is that I don't know whether the Nimrodi family is really ready to sell. They are considering the idea, but I'm not sure that deep down they are ready to say goodbye."
They will have no choice.
"Our investments in Keshet and Bezeq [communications companies] were not Zionism-based. They were business investments. It's the same with Ma'ariv. I think Nimrodi can get a lot more money from people like Sheldon [Adelson] or Gaydamak."
Still, something draws you to Ma'ariv: I see a sparkle in your eyes.
"True. We could seriously improve the situation of Ma'ariv. It can be turned into a profitable business. And it's true that if you get the opportunity to have influence in a sphere that is very important to you, the factor that lets you wield the influence is important."
What you are saying is that if you can't be prime minister of Israel, then owning an influential paper in Israel is a pretty good substitute.
"It's not that simple. If you came to Ma'ariv I wouldn't tell you to write this way or that. It doesn't work like that. But a newspaper has a soul [also, wind]. And if one can affect whether the winds blow right or left, that's important. It doesn't have the same weight as being prime minister, but it's important."
Why not replace Eliezer Fishman [as a partner] in Yedioth Ahronoth [Israel's largest daily]? You were very close to [publisher] Noni [Mozes, the paper's owner].
"We are still friends. I like and respect Noni. But Yedioth is the Mozes family paper. There are things you just don't do. You don't get into that stew when it's clear that it's the paper of Noni Mozes."
It's either be the owner or nothing?
"Of course. Just to look for a return on your investment there are a million possibilities that are not the press."
In the press you look for influence, not a return.
"A return with influence."
And are you satisfied with the return on your influential investment in Keshet?
"I like Keshet very much."
Wasn't the bid in the tender too high?
"In retrospect, the bid was high."
Still, there is pressure: the market is rough.
"The problems stem from the fact that the concept of two franchisees is archaic. If the regulating body looks at the facts on the ground it must permit the merger of [Channel 2 television franchisees] Keshet and Reshet. In my opinion, it will do just that."
Reshet and Keshet will merge in a year or two?
"Yes, I think so."
Do you watch Israeli television programs?
"I watch the Israeli channel on mute all the time. Here in Israel they are either singing or cooking. So much cooking. All the time, cooking. It's unbelievable."
A year ago you bought Bezeq. Don't you think there is a problem in the fact that the State of Israel sold you a monopoly? Doesn't control of a private and aggressive monopoly give you too much power?
"To begin with, I don't agree that it's a monopoly. Second, the government did not decide to sell to me. It decided to sell. By chance I made the highest offer and won. There was never a decision to sell Bezeq to Haim Saban."
In the United States, wouldn't Bezeq be broken up like AT&T?
"I can't answer that question. But I do know that what they broke up in America, they are now merging. They broke the eggs to make an omelet but now there is no omelet and no eggs. Thank God that they understood this in Israel and did not break up Bezeq in order to put it back together five years down the line."
Are you satisfied with the purchase? Isn't it a big, complex company which is past its prime?
"The reason for the purchase was perfectly clear: business. Just business. In the fourteen months since we got the keys, the stock has gone up by 25 percent. A return of 25 percent in one year? More than enough."
Tell me, is it fun to be a billionaire?
Tell me about it. What's the kick?
"I've never thought about it like that. I'll tell you a few things and maybe we will find the answer you're looking for. Look, before I go to sleep, after I close my eyes, I open them again and look at the two pillars at the entrance to the bedroom. Do you know what I say to myself? I say, you made it big, you jerk."
That's how you fall asleep? With those sweet words?
Is there a sense of power?
"I don't think of it that way. I'm not after power. But I do not belittle the fact that I can go to Angela Merkel in the Chancellory and say, 'Hi, Angela, how are you?' And she replies, 'Haim, nice to see you.' I don't minimize that. That's a great pleasure. And that I sit with Clinton in the White House and he goes to the refrigerator and asks me if I want regular water or fizzy? Sometimes I tell myself that there's something a bit nutty here. He's the president of the United States. I sell cartoons. So he is going to serve me and ask if I want regular or fizzy water?"
Do you have the feeling that you are living in a movie?
"I'm living in a movie all the time."
Tell me about your lifestyle. How many homes do you have?
"Too many. But I don't like talking about materialistic things. I will tell you that my wife and I pamper ourselves beyond my imagination. I never imagined because I never knew such things existed. I think the answer to your question is that one can say yes to a great many things. And also to help. Giving provides more gratification than I can describe."
Of all the homes, which is the most meaningful?
"This one, in Beverly Hills, that my wife built from start to finish. I bought the land, I laid the cornerstone, I brought a rabbi to give a blessing, then I left and returned and found the house the way you see it today. Did you see the garden? Isn't it a little like Versailles? When I came to Los Angeles twenty years ago, there was a house like this in Bel Air that was a mini-mini Versailles. It had a front yard that was utterly stunning. I would drive over and park across from the gate and put on music and look at the garden and tell myself that one day I would have a garden like that. When we moved here that day came."
It all happened very fast, didn't it? Your leap into great riches happened ten or twelve years ago. How do stay sane in such a rapid change?
"Do you think I am sane?"
Very much so.
"I have very strong discipline. Every day I train for an hour or an hour and a half, according to a schedule. And I try to eat healthy. I work very hard. The family comes first. The family is the Rock of Gibraltar."
Looking back, do you understand how you did it?
"I had a master sergeant in the army who taught me one thing: Never do anything you can't do perfectly. That was a turning point."
Your whole story really consists of just four or five moves: Power Rangers, Fox, Disney, [German broadcaster] ProSieben and now Univision. But in each one you saw something others didn't.
"You look at opportunities and you decide. There is no school where you can learn this. I thank God that I was apparently blessed with this sense. Otherwise I can't explain why I went door-to-door with Power Rangers for eight years when everyone told me to drop it. Otherwise I can't explain why all my advisers told me not to go into a deal with [Rupert] Murdoch but I insisted. Or why 82 companies wanted ProSieben but they all dropped out one after the other and we stayed. It's like a pitbull that grabs you by the throat and doesn't let go until you go down. I can't explain all those things. It's a special sense."
There is an element of chutzpah in your money.
"I prefer to call it daring."
You made a lot of money from garbage, from nothing.
"What's nothing? I started with nothing, that's true. And I made my money honestly. To reach 73 countries with your channels is nothing to you? To reach 400 million people is nothing? I know that with the Power Rangers there was a debate over taste. And I agree that it's not Bialik, or Shakespeare. It's entertainment, simply entertainment. Can anyone argue with the taste of hundreds of millions of children?"
Hillary for president
Where does your closeness with Bill Clinton come from? There are donations and interests, obviously. But maybe you have a connection that comes from both of you being born on the wrong side of the tracks and making it with a combination of cunning and personal charm?
"I don't know. I know how it began. I began as a regular donor. A friend asked if I wanted to have breakfast in the White House. I said fine. And when I sat there, every time Clinton's eyes met mine something started spinning in my gut. One thing led to another. Afterward, the whole family was invited to the White House. In the 2004 elections we watched the results together. Should I tell you that I don't pinch myself? I'm sitting here, he's sitting there, Hillary is there. Chelsea and her boyfriend are on another couch. And she keeps getting up to bring me Diet Coke and San Pellegrino bottled water. And both of us have our feet up and are watching the results in state after state until three in the morning. Yes, I pinch myself."
Is there the same closeness with Hillary, or is it a guy thing?
"It's not just a guy thing, but with her it's more professional. He's more open, she's more cautious. She protects herself. Hillary is more of a lady."
Could she be president?
"In my view she is ten times more qualified than any other candidate."
Do you really believe that, or is that your friendship talking?
"What friendship? This is the presidency of the United States. Do you think I would support you if you were running?"
And is America capable of electing a liberal woman?
"Yes. And she's not all that liberal, either. When it comes to security, she has taken a very centrist position."
Will she be good for Israel?
"I think so. Look, President Bush is very one-sidedly pro-Israel. But look at the results of his policy. They were not beneficial for Israel. We are in a major mess. Look at the facts on the ground. Bush is a massive failure. Hillary will be more balanced than Bush. She will try to create credibility among the Arabs in order to mediate between them and us. We will get nowhere with them in direct negotiations. Only with billions, with pressure."
Will President Hillary Clinton be capable of making tough decisions on Iran?
"Her policy will be different. She believes, and I agree, that it's a mistake to conduct negotiations through the European envoys. As I told you about Hamas, we have to talk with everyone, including Ahmadinejad. Hillary Clinton intends to engage with Iran in order to try to find a political solution that will ensure a non-nuclear Iran."
And if she can't reach a political solution?
"I don't think she knows, and I certainly don't know, and even if I knew I wouldn't tell you, with all due respect."
Do you still feel, as you once did, that America's attitude toward Israel is liable to deteriorate?
"At the moment there is no sign of a crisis. But we must not be complacent. The two pillars of the state are the Israel Defense Forces and the U.S., Dimona [the site of Israel's nuclear reactor] and Washington. We must do all we can to maintain the alliance with America. A major crisis at the wrong time could be a disaster, a disaster."
Do you feel that as an Israeli-American of influence your mission is to prevent that crisis?
"You said it."
Do the Jews have a future in America?
"Yes, certainly. It's a strong community, Hillel is active on college campuses. But there is also assimilation. Take me. Even though my wife is not Jewish, I did not assimilate. But my son will not have the same affinity for Israel that I have. I would like to see him in uniform. I think it is the duty of every Jew to serve in the IDF. He wanted to enlist in the past, but he's not talking about that anymore."
Are you sure your son will live as a Jew in the long term?
"Look, I don't believe in religious coercion. That's why I never told my wife to convert. But when we were married I told her there would be no children. What do you mean, no children? Exactly that: no children. You believe in Jesus Christ - he came once and will come again. I don't care if he has come or has already gone. That's not my problem. But one thing I do know. In my soul, my spirit, my blood and my mind I am a Jew. It is unacceptable to me for my children not to be Jews in every respect. She told me: So it will be. I told her that this is my line in the sand. Every night before eating we say the motzi, the blessing over bread. And kiddush over the wine on Shabbat. And Bar Mitzvah, the whole thing. When my mother-in-law tells my son that he is half-Christian and half-Jewish, he answers her, 'I am not only Jewish, I am Israeli.'"
Will the children inherit everything? Will they continue the Saban empire?
"A certain amount goes to the four children, but it's not as if when I pass on and my wife passes on they'll just get a pile of money. No way, there are very strict conditions. They have to be independent, productive citizens. But the great majority of the money will not go to them. It will go back to where it came from, society."
Israeli society or American society?
"Half and half."
Everything you did, everything you built will go back to society?
"Why? If I knew where I was going and I that the money would help me there, I wouldn't give it to anyone, I would take it all with me. But I expect to become dust, so what would I do with all that?"
Then it's all a game, the entire $2.8 billion you have accumulated is a game.
"Don't believe everything you read in Forbes."
Was the Forbes estimate high, or low?
"I leave it for you to guess. But look, the money is only a marker. It tells you whether you succeeded or not. At the level we are talking about, beyond that it has no value. Therefore everything will be sold. This house, too. And the other homes. Everything. Before I go on to my next adventure I will return the money to the society that gave it to me."
And the money for Israel - where will it go?
"Mainly to combat units, that is the most important thing: Housing for lone combat soldiers, free education for combat soldiers, things like that. These are guys who don't volunteer for Sayeret Matkal [ultra-elite commando unit] or for the Paratroops just because they want to jump out of a plane. Look, they are Jews, I am a Jew. And when they blacken their faces and enter Bint Jbail [in southern Lebanon] and I'm in Beverly Hills - who owes whom? They're in Bint Jbail and I'm in my chateau. Where is the justice, where is the balance? It's because of them that I am alive."
Haim Saban, I have been listening to you for hours and I still don't get it: What's your thing? Where is your place, really?
"It's very simple, habibi. I am in the West but my heart is in the East."
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