by Eli Clifton
With a combined $10 million in contributions, billionaire Haim Saban and his wife Cheryl Saban are emerging as the biggest donors to the super PAC Priorities USA Action, which supports Hillary Clinton. For her part, Clinton has done much to assure Saban, who described himself in a 2010 New Yorker interview as a “one-issue guy, and my issue is Israel,” that she shares his views on Israel.
Last July, Clinton addressed a letter to Saban in which she committed to opposing the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanction Movement (“BDS”), writing:
I know you agree that we need to make countering BDS a priority. I am seeking your advice on how we can work together—across party lines and with a diverse array of voices—to reverse this trend with information and advocacy, and fight back against further attempts to isolate and delegitimize Israel.
If Clinton has an open-door policy with her eight-figure super PAC donor, as the letter suggested, then it’s worth exploring some of the other policy advocacy that Saban helps support.
Cooperating with CAMERA
In the 2014 tax year, the last year for which the Saban Charitable Support Fund’s tax filings are available, Saban and his wife contributed $625,000 to the hawkish pro-Israel media “watchdog” group Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America (CAMERA).
CAMERA has a track record of pushing fringe talking points on issues ranging from the invasion of Iraq to the White House’s alleged use of anti-Semitic “dog whistles” during last year’s debate over the Iran deal.
Referring to a 2009 meeting between the White House and Jewish American leaders, CAMERA published a political comic strip alleging that the Zionist Organization of America wasn’t invited “because Zionist has become a bad word” and CAMERA was “snubbed” because “the problematic word there is accuracy.”
CAMERA has also repeatedly reprinted reports citing or supporting the National Coalition of Resistance of Iran (NCRI)—an exiled Iranian opposition group that the State Department removed from terrorism list in 2012 following a lengthy and expensive lobbying campaign—without mentioning the group’s poor human rights record or its weak track record in delivering reliable intelligence from inside Iran.
A 2005 report by Human Rights Watch detailed the group’s cult-like control over its members and a record of human rights violations designed to severely punish dissidents or would-be deserters.
Last year, CAMERA’s blog published a post titled “Anti-Semitic Echoes in Iran Deal Debate” and denounced Obama for suggesting that lobbyists and well-heeled interests were opposing the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).
Obama, defending the JCPOA, had told The Daily Show’s Jon Stewart:
I guarantee you, if people feel strongly about making sure that Iran doesn’t get a nuclear weapon without us going to war, and that is expressed to Congress, then people will believe in that. And the same is true on every single issue. If people are engaged, eventually the political system responds, despite the money, despite the lobbyists, it still responds.
CAMERA concluded, “[I]t is bigoted to invoke anti-Semitic tropes to tar Jewish Americans or those who represent them in Congress,” effectively saying that it is anti-Semitic to discuss the massive budgets deployed to defeat the Iran deal.
Perhaps Saban’s high-six-figure contribution to CAMERA could be explained away if the group’s tilt to the far right was a new phenomenon. But CAMERA has a long history of kneejerk responses to criticism of Israel. Back in December 2002, two months after the House of Representatives passed the Authorization for Use of Military Force Against Iraq Resolution, CAMERA blasted Chicago Sun Times columnist Robert Novak for suggesting that then-Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was pushing the U.S. into war with Iraq.
No one argues that “military force alone” is a panacea anywhere. But many have argued that without regime change—by force if unavoidable—the threat of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction (WMD) will not be curbed. Moreover, the possibility of Iraqi links to Al-Qaeda raises the troubling issue of Iraq transferring WMD to this terrorist group.
As it turned out, Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction. And the 9/11 report concluded:
… to date we have seen no evidence that these or the earlier contacts ever developed into a collaborative operational relationship. Nor have we seen evidence indicating that Iraq cooperated with al Qaeda in developing or carrying out any attacks against the United States.
But CAMERA’s record of promoting the WMD and al-Qaeda justifications for invading Iraq doesn’t appear to dissuade Saban from lending his financial support.
In 2014, The Saban Family Foundation contributed $1 million to AIPAC’s fundraising arm, the American Israel Education Foundation (AIEF). His support came in the same time period that AIPAC began a full court press to prevent the Joint Plan of Action, an interim agreement between Iran and the P5+1 signed in November 2013, and the subsequent negotiations leading up to the JCPOA in July 2015.
AIPAC spent at least $14.5 million on TV ads opposing the deal and, like CAMERA, attacked Obama head-on when the President, in an August 2015 speech, said that “Many of the same people who argued for the war in Iraq are now making the case against the Iran nuclear deal.”
AIPAC spokesman Marshall Wittmann told The New York Times that “Aipac took no position on the Iraq war” and urged the White House to “avoid questioning motives and employing any ad hominem attacks.” AIPAC President Robert A. Cohen later accused The New York Times of “multiple” inaccuracies in its coverage of the group. He reiterated that “leading up to the start of the Iraq War in March 2003, AIPAC took no position whatsoever, nor did we lobby on the issue.”
Cohen and Wittmann were furiously spinning, but the facts didn’t back them up. Documents acquired by LobeLog and published last year, show AIPAC warning Hill staffers in 2001 that “As long as Saddam Hussein is in power, any containment of Iraq will only be temporary until the next crisis or act of aggression” and, in an October 2002 newsletter to its membership, repeating the debunked allegation that “Iraq is maintaining contact with the vile perpetrators of 9/11.”
Hillary Clinton supported the invasion of Iraq, a position she later said was a “mistake.” But her public backtracking on the vote hasn’t deterred Haim Saban’s support.
Two things are clear about Haim Saban and his financial contributions. First, he is a dedicated opponent of the White House’s handling of the Iran nuclear deal and unafraid to invest his money in groups that launched ad hominem attacks on Obama as part of their efforts to scuttle the deal and played a role in circulating the debunked justifications for the invasion of Iraq.
Second, his investment in Clinton’s candidacy indicates that he is far more comfortable in the foreign policy positions he believes she would pursue as president. Currently, her public pronouncements differ little from the White House, leaving an open question about what messages Saban has received in private.
Photo of Hillary Clinton by Marc Nozell via Flickr.