Battle of the Billionaires: Adelson vs. Saban

When Sheldon Adelson goes to bat against Haim Saban in the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign, one thing's for sure: It's not good for Israel.

Sheldon Adelson and Chaim Saban
Ofer Vaknin, AP

Israeli-American businessman Haim Saban, a major donor and fundraiser for the Democratic Party and one of those closest to the Clintons, was not happy with the results of the 2008 election campaign. He apparently foresaw U.S. President Barack Obama’s Cairo speech, the agreement with the Iranians and perhaps even the present frigid atmosphere in relations between Jerusalem and Washington. I met with him in December 2008, a moment before Obama assumed office, for an interview in his home in Malibu.

The view was breathtaking. A waiter offered me a soft drink, and Saban hissed: “And me you don’t bring anything. They always screw the blacks.” This comment led to a discussion of the new president. “I’m very, very worried,” he said repeatedly. He said that he had heard from people close to Obama that he intended to subject Israel to new standards of work with the administration, commenting that Obama’s attitude towards the Middle East would probably be diametrically opposed to that of his predecessors. He was apparently still disappointed at Hillary Clinton’s defeat in the primaries. He explained that he hadn’t raised money for Obama. After politely praisingObama, he added that his relationship with him was “much less warm” than his rapport with the Clintons. In their home he walks around barefoot and in shorts.

Starting this week Saban can probably take off his shoes again. He is returning to the arena with all his financial resources, assuming that Clinton becomes the Democratic presidential candidate. She will be opposed by an as yet unknown Republican candidate, but if it’s Jeb Bush, Governor Chris Christie or another black horse like Marco Rubio, we can assume that no less stormy than the public contest will be the war behind the scenes – between the major fundraiser for the Democrats and the biggest donor to the Republicans (of all times), Sheldon Adelson, who invested at least $93 million in Mitt Romney in 2012 and lost.

Adelson declared at the start of the present campaign that this time he would focus on the candidate with the best chances (after losing time and money financing Newt Gingrich in the 2012 primaries), and that he would invest far greater sums than in the past if necessary.

All this means that the coming election campaign will be characterized by a behind-the-scenes battle between the two pro-Israel philanthropists, controlled by the business-government connections of the puppet masters. Although they live in the United States their thoughts are with a small country in the Middle East, and they are deeply involved in its political and business world out of a desire to influence its government, by acquiring media outlets, among other things. For those who think that Obama was “bad for the Jews” and that the agreement with Iran is a disaster this is good news, but it’s not at all certain that it’s good news for Israel – certainly not over the long term.

U.S. politics have always been drowing in demonic quantities of money, which are only increasing. But due to the stability of the administration, the presidential system, the constitution and other checks and balances, the Americans are able to limit the influence of money. That’s why the $93 million that Adelson contributed to Romney didn’t help him, nor did the tens of millions he invested in other Republicans.

Here, on the other hand, there are no such balances, and therefore in Israel Adelson has much more influence on policymakers than in the United States. Some people even think that the attempts to legislate against his free newspaper were the reason why Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu dissolved the government. Adelson can only dream of such influence on the U.S. administration, but meanwhile he uses his connections with Netanyahu in order to split the Jewish community in the United States between right and left. Some members of this community are angry that he is using Israel to influence U.S. politics.

Already from the start of the Republican primaries (which some are calling “Adelson’s primaries”) he demonstrated how every one of his candidates will have to pay a price in the form of support for Israel. Adelson is said to have forced Chris Christie to apologize for using the routine term “occupied territories” to describe Judea, Samaria and the Gaza Strip.

Saban is less divisive, but the coming election campaign where he is confronting Adelson will force him to prove that Clinton is better for the Jews, for Israel and perhaps even for Netanyahu. After all, both Saban and Adelson are interested in emphasizing the connection between their candidate and Israel, and to obscure past disputes. This may be good for the candidate and for business. But how is Israel supposed to convince the Americans that Israel’s interests, especially its security interests, are beyond any political dispute, if its patrons are so deeply involved in the domestic election campaign of the United States?