Sheldon Adelson vs. Haim Saban: Two Styles of Big American Money in Israeli Politics

One is the tycoon-owner of a newspaper, the other runs a club of politicians and media people and invests in Israeli firms dependent on friendly regulation.

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Sheldon Adelson and Chaim Saban
Sheldon Adelson and Chaim SabanCredit: Ofer Vaknin, AP
Eytan Avriel
Eytan Avriel

When pundits growl about illicit ties between “big money and government,” a lot of people don’t really understand what they mean. Those who represent the big money side, for their part, even claim that no such thing exists. But if there is still someone who doesn’t understand the connection, he or she will find it highly enlightening to look at – of all places – the Twitter account of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

What you will see there is Netanyahu, a man who typically refuses to give interviews to the Israeli press, taking part in a totally “journalistic” conversation, including questions and answers, with a man who is Israeli but not a journalist: the high-flying businessman Haim Saban.

Why did the prime minister give an interview, as it were, in public via satellite, to a businessman? Is he now going to start giving interviews to energy baron Yitzhak Tshuva? Or maybe telecoms magnate Shaul Elovitch? How about gas-field tycoon Kobi Maimon?

Saban, in case you don’t know, is an Israeli-American billionaire. He owns the controlling stake in Partner Communications; he used to own the Bezeq phone company but sold it for enormous profit; and he owns television broadcasters in the United States, which cost him a pretty penny.

Haim Saban likes to mix business and politics – and admits it openly. He was one of the big donors to Hillary Clinton – Saban and Bill are close friends – and he spared no effort or expense to promote her ultimately unsuccessful presidential drive.

Businessman Haim Saban arrives before the start of the third U.S. presidential debate at the Thomas & Mack Center on October 19, 2016 in Las Vegas, Nevada. Credit: Drew Angerer/Getty Images/AFP

The U.S. media discerned a certain problem with all of this, especially in light of the fact that Saban would like the appropriate conditions to be created so that he can go public with his TV business.

Anybody who makes his living merging big money and government, business and politics, isn’t likely to cavil at adding a newspaper to that stew. Saban indeed does not cavil. Moreover, he has often stated that he wants to buy The Los Angeles Times – he lives in that city. And he’d like to buy The New York Times even more. How frustrating that neither is for sale, or at least, not at an especially attractive price.

The ideal model for businessmen of this ilk is to have a hand and foot in each of these three realms: big money, government and the press.

For the nonce, until he can buy a newspaper, Haim Saban is making his mark in a fourth realm: his research institute, which gives him a platform to connect all these threads together.

He is neither an academic nor a researcher, but Saban wanted his own institute, and thus donated $13 million to the prestigious Brookings Institute, to set up a Center for Middle East Policy there.

Hillary Clinton with Tzipi Livni, Haim Saban and Isaac Herzog at the Saban Forum, in Washington, Dec. 6, 2014.Credit: Peter Halmagyi

So it happens that every year Saban convenes a confab called The Saban Forum, to which he invites, at his own expense, all manner of parties to the ménage-a-trois of big money-government-media, where they can mingle. This year, Brookings held the Forum on December 2 to 4, in Washington, DC.

He invited Israeli politicians (this year his list included Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman); American politicians (former Connecticut senator Joe Lieberman, no relation to Avigdor); and Israeli journalists (Barak Ravid of Haaretz, and media colleagues Yaron Dekel and Raviv Drucker, who came at the expense of their employers). A whole slew of other Israeli journalists, including Ilana Dayan and Nahum Barnea and Yoaz Handel, and Ben Caspit, accepted tickets from Saban, according to the business daily Globes.

What about businessmen? There were some, though not too many, because that’s Saban’s role at the annual event.

Some schlepper!

Just how influential Saban has become by this method was evident in that twitter feed from the Forum. Imagine this scene: A tycoon, a billionaire – whose fortunes depend at least in part on regulatory decisions by the Israeli communications minister (remember, Saban owns Partner Communications) – interviews, in front of the whole world, the Israeli communications minister (since in addition to being prime minister, Netanyahu is also the communications minister, not to mention foreign minister.)

Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman addressing the Saban Forum in Washington, D.C. on Friday, December 3, 2016.Credit: Saban Forum

In that interview, the tycoon asked the premier all sorts of questions. And that wasn’t the only weird thing going on. In one instance, Saban directed “questions from the audience” to Netanyahu, one of which came from none other than Yonit Levy, a news anchorwoman for Channel 2, which is the biggest media establishment in Israel today.

In another part of the “interview,” Netanyahu urged the Egyptian-born Saban, personally, to engage in some diplomacy with Israel’s neighbors, as though Saban held some official diplomatic post. Which he doesn’t, as Saban himself pointed out. “I don’t have that authority, but that’s okay. Thank you for your offer. Maybe next time.”

Netanyahu wouldn’t let it go: People wouldn’t refuse such a role because, the prime minister noted, “You’re the Saban Forum, you’re the Saban in the Saban Forum.”

At that stage, even the host himself found the situation embarrassing, and chose in response to lower the level of mutual brown-nosing, commenting, “I’m a former cartoon schlepper [a reference to the fact that got his strat in Power Rangers and other animated and children’s TV shows]. I used to have a standing in society and my standing was that I’m a cartoon schlepper. Now, I’m not even a cartoon schlepper, I’m a former cartoon schlepper, so?”

But Saban isn’t a cartoon schlepper any more; he’s a power broker with systemic influence who stirs, buys, pays, manipulates, maneuvers in the worlds of business, politics, the press, research institutes – and all at once. He is the definition of big money-government ties.

It’s not hard to understand the man. Mixing business, politics, contacts, the media, Israel, America, research and international conferences is a winning cocktail for him. It creates business and regulatory opportunities, gives him pleasure and respect, and it’s also a huge ego-booster. Netanyahu sure gave him quite the ego boost in that interview.

Understanding the other people willing to serve as extras in Saban’s one-man show is harder. The hardest thing to figure out is what senior reporters in Israel, people whose good name matters to them, were doing there. Isn’t it mortifying for Yonit Levy to ask the prime minister a question though a billionaire who owns Partner Communications? Does the fact that the tycoon paid for her ticket dull the shame?

Favoring Adelson

Some would say there’s no difference between Saban and other tycoons operating in Israeli telecoms, like Sheldon Adelson, who owns the free newspaper Israel Hayom and is a firm Netanyahu supporter.

But there are differences between them – actually, in favor of Adelson. Here they are.

Sheldon Adelson, Benjamin Netanyahu and Miri Adelson at an event in Jerusalem in 2008.Credit: Eyal Warshavsky / BauBau

1. The Saban Forum is not open to the public, or to all media or press people and politicians. Haim Saban is the one who decides who can attend, who will be flown over in business class and be accommodated at a five-star hotel. There are clear give-and-take relations between this billionaire and politicians and journalists. Adelson doesn’t go for that.

2. Saban made billions in Israel, mainly because of political-cum-regulatory decisions. Ehud Olmert, when he was prime minister, and various communications ministers over time were the ones who decided, back when Saban owned Bezeq, to prevent competition from arising in the cellular market (where Bezeq operates through its subsidiary Pelephone). The absence of competition in that market contributed billions of shekels to Pelephone’s value, and to Saban’s profits.

3. Why a politician like Avigdor Lieberman would go to the Saban Forum is obvious, but what are politicians like Stav Shaffir and Merav Michaeli doing there? Is it just because he talks about the “peace process”?

4. Haim Saban is no different from Adelson in his fondness for money and prime ministers. Olmert was taped talking with his former secretary and confidante, Shula Zaken, about Olmert calling Saban and trying to arrange a job for Zaken’s son. Also Saban is a major investor in a successful startup belonging to Olmert, Jr.

5. Adelson absorbs many sharp barbs for his relations with Netanyahu. But the press ignores Saban’s entanglements with Israeli politicians, and with Noni Mozes, owner of the influential Israeli media group Yedioth Ahronoth (Saban even considered buying Yedioth once upon a time). Nor does the media criticize its own habit of accepting hospitality from the billionaire once a year in Washington.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu isn't going anywhere soon, and the so-called 'left' is incapable of replacing him. Credit: Screenshot

No wonder that at the end of the conversation with Saban, the prime minister decided to turn the tables and ostensibly ask his “interviewer” a question. It was about the freedom of the press in Israel.

“Haim, I have a question for you. So, I hear that one of your panelists asked if there is still a free press in the U.S. and Israel. I leave the U.S. to you. But it’s an interesting question about Israel,” Netanyahu said – although he didn’t actually wind up asking Saban so much as answering himself: “I checked. I turned on Channel 10: pro-Bibi. In the news, satire, gossip: pro-Bibi. I turned on Channel 2, same thing: pro-Bibi. Turn on all the media channels, open the radio: pro-Bibi. Boy, it’s so boring, you know?

“Now, speaking seriously. There is no country in the world where the press is freer. There is no country in the world that attacks its leader more than the Israeli press attacks me, that’s fine.”

Next Netanyahu will probably suggest that his buddy Shaul Elovitch, who is today the man who owns Bezeq and the Yes triple-play company too, set up a research institute too. Maybe he’d give Elovitch an interview too.

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