November 10, 2010
For the love of Israel, health care and ‘Power Rangers’
Haim Saban is sitting at the head of the table in his conference room on the 26th floor of his Century City tower offices. Here, he is kingpin, an image strongly reinforced by where he sits, as well as the attentiveness of his traditionally dressed office butler, who ducks in and out of the meeting continuously, pouring Pellegrino and serving cappuccinos.
Saban wears a white dress shirt and black sport coat with thick gold buttons. He has a broad, brawny stature and a deep, sonorous voice. His 66-year-old face is full of the sharp etchings of time, which makes him appear expressive even when he is not displaying emotion. He is naturally authoritative, though this, too, is reinforced by the austere decor — a dark, wood-paneled office with sweeping city views, from the Wilshire Country Club immediately below to the hills and sea in the distance.
On this afternoon, Saban is meeting with a roomful of representatives from the Israeli Leadership Council (ILC) who have come hoping to draw from the well of their favorite sugar daddy.
Lesson No. 1 in how to pitch to a billionaire: Speak a common language — or two.
“B’ivrit or b’anglit [Hebrew or English]?” Marissa Sharpe, director of operations for the ILC asks Saban. She is about to pitch the ILC’s latest initiative, “Netina” (giving).
“Anglit,” Saban tells her.
“So, the idea behind Netina is to create bridges between the American Israelis and the Jewish Americans through volunteering,” Sharpe says. “The idea is to create a large community that will transcend all kinds of different opinions, because everybody believes in doing good. By April, we’re going to have a special event, and the only way to come to the event is by volunteering at least four hours.”
“There’s no such thing in the Jewish community,” adds Eli Tene, ILC co-chair and a member of its board of directors.
“What do you think about the concept?” asks Shoham Nicolet, the ILC’s executive director.
Saban sits quietly and upright, intensely attentive. “You know, it’s a great concept,” he says. “I like the idea that you’re tapping into primarily the Jewish and Israeli communities, but that you’re offering a service to not only Jewish causes, which I think is ...
“It’s a must,” Tene interjects.
“Well, I wasn’t going to say ‘it’s a must,’ but you’re right in saying it’s a must. I think it’s very great for Israel’s image, and as we know, Israel totally unjustifiably has an image problem. So. from that point of view, I think ...”
“I’m sorry to interrupt,” says Danny Alpert, the ILC’s other co-chair and a manufacturer of diamond jewelry. “But Israelis, too, have an image [problem], you understand? An image that they’re not giving back. Even in the Jewish community. That’s what we’re trying to change.”
Lesson No. 2: Ask for advice.
“What do you think are the challenges of this program?” Nicolet asks Saban.
“Challenge No. 1 is you gotta raise $382,000. That, you’re aware of — klum hadesh lecha [nothing new to you]. And I appreciate that you’re not here just to get my creative input, b’seder [OK]?”
Lesson No. 3: Don’t actually ask for the money; let the billionaire offer it.
“We’re not here to ask you for money, Haim, I’m being serious,” Nicolet says.
“Maybe not today,” Saban answers animatedly, his voice trilling with enthusiasm, “but eventually ...!”
There is an eruption of laughter, and Saban, who is quick to sense an opportunity, showcases his good humor: “Eventually, Eli, at lunch, will generously pay, as he always fights to pay for lunches when we have our lunches on Fridays” — these gatherings are known within their circle as “Israeli parliament” — “and he’s going to say, ‘’Bo nishteh café [come, let’s drink a coffee].’ “
Lesson No. 4: Flattery will get you everywhere.
“Haim, I like very much the letter that you sent to Time [magazine],” Alpert says during a pause in the Hebrew banter. He is referring to the magazine’s recent cover story declaring, “Why Israelis Don’t Want Peace,” a subject that, not surprisingly, gets Saban’s blood boiling.
“What I wrote was much tougher,” Saban said, explaining that the magazine’s editor, Richard Stengel, is not only Jewish, but a friend. “I e-mailed him and said, ‘Are you out of your friggin’ mind, Richard?! Are you crazy?? Why Israelis don’t want peace?!’ He said, ‘What are you talking about? We showed all these wonderful things about Israeli people hanging in the sun.’ I said, ‘If you read [the article], you read that basically Israelis are a bunch of beach bums! Maybe there are two or three Israelis that are like that, but the vast majority of Israelis don’t want peace? It is a distortion of reality.”