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Is Haim Saban dumping Obama or playing political hardball?

by Danielle Berrin

May 31, 2011 | 3:49 pm

It’s no secret that there are powerful forces within the American Jewish community who feel deep distrust and doubt when it comes to President Obama’s relationship to Israel. Whether Haim Saban, the billionaire media mogul and largest individual donor to the Democratic Party counts himself in that camp is a worthy question.

What is not worthy is shoddy reporting that projects false conclusions.

Late last week, in a report on an interview Saban gave to CNBC about the Obama-Netanyahu summit, a Commentary Magazine headline declared that a “key Jewish donor breaks with Obama.”

“One of the most important Democratic donors in the past two decades, whose generous contributions helped pay for the DNC headquarters in Washington, D.C., has indicated that he will not contribute to President Obama’s reelection campaign in 2012, because of the administration’s stance on Israel,” reporter Alana Goodman wrote.

This of course, is a very significant statement, given that it concerns a major political donor known for his single-issue concern – Israel—but the problem is, it isn’t true.

When asked by a CNBC anchor if he was satisfied with Obama’s clarification about a two-state solution based on the 1967 borders, what Saban actually said was: “[On that point] we’re all good; as an Israeli-American we’re all good.”

Saban’s criticism, which he made of both Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, was that they need to address their differences in private, not at the U.N., not in front of the cameras. Understandably, Saban would like to see the relationship afforded the dignity of confidence between friends.

“The Prime Minister should not be speaking as he has to my President in the oval office,” Saban told CNBC. “That is not an acceptable behavior. Nor is, frankly, President Obama’s handling of every controversy in public, as he has done.”

Even though, under the Obama administration, U.S. military aid to Israel is at its highest in Israel’s history, there remains ambivalence and skepticism regarding Obama’s diplomacy there. Saban seems to be satisfied with Obama’s official policy towards Israel but not with his personal affinity for the Jewish state.

“I’m very perplexed as to why the president, who’s been to Cairo, to Saudi Arabia, to Turkey, has not made a stop in Israel and spoken to the Israeli people,” he said. Saban also suggested that with a direct address to the Israelis, Obama could assuage their concerns about brokering a Israeli-Palestinian peace deal.

That’s when the anchor asked Saban if he would contribute to Obama’s re-election campaign. Saban replied obliquely; saying that Obama didn’t really need his financial support: “He has raised so much money and will raise so much through the internet, more than anybody,” Saban said, but made it clear that if he were solicited, he would contribute to Obama’s campaign. Saban also said he would remain a “staunch” supporter of the Democratic Party and indicated his money would be better spent educating and influencing members of congress above and beyond the executive cabinet (the idea that U.S. congressional support for Israel is most vital to Israel’s security and prosperity is also AIPAC’s operating principle).

So what’s with the sensational headline that suggests Saban is withdrawing his full political support from Obama?

At best, it’s a shallow misunderstanding; at worst, it’s irresponsible journalism. Haim Saban is a well-worn political influencer and I can only assume, extremely careful and calculated about the statements he makes to the press. What he’s doing here is playing a political game, sending a message to the President that says, ‘Well, maybe I won’t contribute to your re-election campaign unless...’

His goal is clear: he wants the President to visit Israel and talk to Israelis. He wants the President not simply to support Israel but to love, to treat it as more than a strategic interest, but as an ally, a friend.

This is very smart posturing because it sets up the opportunity for a quid-pro-quo. When it comes time for Obama’s re-election campaign and Saban is next on the call list, rather than a guarantee of support, Obama will have to make good on Saban’s request.


Read my profile of Haim Saban here.

Watch the CNBC interview:

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

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Danielle Berrin writes the Hollywood Jew blog, a cutting edge, values-based take on the entertainment industry for jewishjournal.com. A Los Angeles Times profile dubbed her...

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