Sheldon Adelson and Haim Saban, two billionaires with right-wing, pro-Israel agendas, took the stage at the Israeli American Council’s inaugural conference in Washington, D.C. They fantasized about bombing Iran and about buying the New York Times because they said it’s biased against Israel. Both are bound to play an outsized role in the 2016 presidential elections by flooding the campaign with money to support their favored candidates. In a post-Citizens United world, Adelson and Saban are kings, and Israel will be the beneficiary of their largesse if the donors have the ear of a future president.
Saban and Adelson are on opposite ends of the mainstream (and narrow) political spectrum. Adelson is a casino mogul who bankrolled the 2012 presidential campaigns of GOP candidates Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney. Saban is in the entertainment business and is a major Democratic Party donor. But when it comes to U.S. foreign policy and Israel, Saban and Adelson take many of the the same positions, displaying an eagerness for war with Iran and a desire to keep the U.S. alliance with Israel rock-solid.
“There’s no right or left when it comes to Israel,” Saban said in what news reports called a joking reference to the moguls’ seating positions at the conference where they spoke.
But the quip was more than just a joke. It was a nod to how the Democratic and Republican parties are united in singing Israel’s praise, backing its military actions and voting to give the country $3.1 billion in U.S. military aid annually. If Adelson’s and Saban’s chosen candidates in 2016 get their way, that unity will shine through during the presidential campaign, with the debate being reduced to who would support Israel the most.
Saban, an Israeli-American famous for producing the TV show Power Rangers, is currently the CEO of the Saban Capital Group, which invests in media companies around the world. A 2010 New Yorker profile of Saban by Connie Bruck paints a portrait of a man who is heavily influential, charming and hawkish. “I’m a one-issue guy and my issue is Israel,” he told the New York Times in 2004.
At the the event with Adelson, Saban had a crude prescription for what Israel should do about Iran. “I would bomb the living daylights out of the sons of bitches.” The answer came during a discussion of what Saban would do if he were Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and thought a nuclear deal with Iran was a threat to Israel.
His chosen candidate is Hillary Clinton, the front-runner for the Democratic Party nomination in 2016. As Bruck reported in the New Yorker, Saban has given millions of dollars to the Clintons in the form of donations to Bill Clinton’s presidential library and the Clinton Global Initiative.
Speaking about Clinton to the Washington Post at the conference, Saban said, “I have told her and everybody who’s asked me, ‘Whatever it takes, we’re going to be there…’ She would be a fantastic president for the United States, an incredible world leader and one under whom I believe — deeply — the relationship with the U.S. and Israel will be significantly reinforced.”
Clinton has given backers like Saban ample reason for thinking of her as the perfect candidate for Israel. During the 2008 presidential election, Clinton was asked by ABC’s “Good Morning America” what she would do if Iran used a nuclear weapon on Israel. “In the next 10 years, during which they might foolishly consider launching an attack on Israel, we would be able to totally obliterate them,” she said. This year, in an interview with the Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg, she doubled down on her pro-Israel agenda. “If I were the prime minister of Israel, you’re damn right I would expect to have control over security [in the West Bank],” she said.
GOP donor Adelson’s choice for who to back in the 2016 race is trickier. The leading GOP candidates include people like Rand Paul and Ted Cruz, two politicians with divergent views on U.S. foreign policy, though Paul has been moving towards a more hawkish position in recent months. What is more clear is that Adelson’s impact, no matter who he backs, will be large. After the GOP losses in 2012, Adelson promised he would “double” his donations to the party. That means Adelson is prepared to spend as much as $300 million on Republican candidates.
Adelson, who made his fortune in the casino business, is one of the richest people in the world. He has used his largesse to shower pro-Israel groups like the Republican Jewish Coalition and the Zionist Organization of America with millions of dollars. In 2012, it was Adelson who prolonged the GOP primary by boosting Newt Gingrich, who famously proclaimed, in line with Adelson’s views, that the Palestinian people were “invented,” that there is no such thing as a Palestinian nation. When Gingrich finally dropped out, Adelson gave $30 million to a pro-Mitt Romney super-PAC.
His influence in the Republican Party was made clear in March of this year. Chris Christie and other potential presidential candidates flew out to speak to the Adelson-backed Republican Jewish Coalition. But Christie tripped up when he used the term “occupied territories” to refer to the West Bank and Gaza. While the Palestinian territories are indeed under occupation–a term used even by the U.S. State Department–Adelson and his ilk reject that view. The audience at the RJC event in March was no fan of the “occupied” remark, and Christie later apologized to Adelson.
The casino mogul apparently believes Israel should hold onto the West Bank forever, even at the cost of democracy in the area. “I don’t think the Bible says anything about democracy,” Adelson said on November 9. “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?”
Adelson also said that the U.S. should “not just talk [with Iran]. I would take action.” Last year, Adelson made waves when he suggested that President Obama should launch a nuclear weapon at Iran to send a message to the country’s leaders. Saban’s and Adelson’s tough talk on Iran comes as a deadline to reach a final nuclear agreement with Iran approaches. Many Democrats and Republicans are deeply skeptical of reaching any deal with Iran.
The 2016 election campaign will likely feature the GOP and Democratic candidates slugging it out on issues like climate change, inequality and immigration. But when it comes to Israel and Iran, the two candidates, backed by people like Saban and Adelson, will have many of the same prescriptions: ramp up pressure on Iran and back Israel no matter what. The only debate will be on how far to take those positions. Think of it as a battle between the Saban position of bombing the “sons of bitches” vs. the Adelson position of nuking Iran.