’You made it big, you jerk!’
It”s the holiday season in Los Angeles. The Jews of Pico Boulevard are decorating their glatt-kosher stores with Hanukkah menorahs and dreidels. The department stores in Beverly Hills are displaying, in the sun, snow-covered Santa Claus sleighs being pulled by reindeer. The mansions of the wealthy inhabitants of Beverly Hills have wrapped themselves in nets of miniature holiday lights. And atop the hill, the gate of the Haim Saban estate proudly bears huge Christmas wreaths.
As the gaping guest walks by the neatly trimmed lawn and the wooden wheel of the imaginary water mill and the windows of the chateau, a heavy door opens for him, beyond which a gigantic Christmas tree sparkles and shines with its decorations. In the long stone corridors that lead to the wood-paneled guest room, the familiar songs of Naomi Shemer play softly: Whatever you wish, let it be. Whatever you wish, let it be.
Saban himself enters a few minutes later. He is somewhat excited. He didn”t really want to be interviewed, but decided there was no choice. At the weekend he will convene the Saban Forum for the third time, and the gathering obliges public relations. Since he lost the hold he had in the White House through his good friends Bill and Hillary Clinton, the Saban Center at the Brookings Institution and the Saban Forum have become his levers of influence on political Washington and on Jerusalem. (For the sake of proper disclosure: The author of this article was invited to lecture at the Saban Forum.)
In recent years, the ability of the colorful Israeli-American billionaire to bring together Ariel Sharon and Bill Clinton, Shimon Peres and Henry Kissinger, Tzipi Livni and Condoleezza Rice has become one of the achievements of which he is proud. During the two years in which his personal fortune grew from $2.2 billion to $2.8 billion (according to Forbes), Saban succeeded in adding to the list of power centers he controls this prestigious annual gathering of senior Israeli and American figures for a joint dialogue.
Does Haim Saban understand the suspicions that his large and well-connected fortune arouses in Israel? Does he see the problematic character of the relations between big capital and government? Even before he sits down in his armchair, Saban goes on the attack. Review is needed and questions have to be asked, he thunders, but what”s going on now in Israel is a witch hunt. We are in first place in the world in witch hunts. Capital can do a great deal of good, he says. But in Israel to do good you need the cooperation of the government. Just because I am everyone”s friend, did I get any gratuities when I bought Bezeq and Keshet? Come on, they”re driving us crazy.
It”s not so simple, I rebut. Your donation to Peres was borderline. It”s said against you that in return for that donation, the communications minister at the time, Dalia Itzik, helped you with the Bezeq acquisition. Listen, Saban laughs, you are not even making me angry. Dalia Itzik didn”t say a word to me about Peres. Peres didn”t say a word to me about Bezeq. To say that I gave Peres a hundred thousand dollars so he would talk to Dalia Itzik is hallucinatory. Totally hallucinatory. It has no basis in reality. The world doesn”t work like that.
He is dressed in a white suit. His black curly hair is brushed back. He is addicted to San Pellegrino mineral water and to hummus-in-pita, but doesn”t touch alcohol. Very disciplined, Saban is. Alert, poised, sharp senses. He is a more-than-gracious host. Did you have dinner? No. Very good. After the interview you”ll dine with me. Have you seen “Borat”? No? Very good. After dinner you will see it with me. He”s half-Israeli, the kid. Nuts, and incredibly talented. And what a success he is here. What a success. He made such a disgusting movie and the Americans love him. He drove them wild.
Haim Saban was born in Alexandria in 1944 and immigrated to Israel in 1956. He moved to Paris in 1975, after almost going bankrupt. He arrived in Los Angeles in 1983 and achieved his first billion in 1995. Within a very short time – slightly more than a decade – he became a media tycoon, the major funder of the Democratic Party and a close friend of the President of the United States. A kind of Great Gatsby. Our Great Gatsby.
Haim Saban, after the second Lebanon War many Israelis are worried about their country”s future. Do you share that concern?
“Israel does not worry me. Israel”s neighbors worry me. I used to be a real leftist. I remember Arik Sharon coming here, to my house, a few months before Camp David, when he was still leader of the opposition. He told me there would be no deal because Arafat would not sign. I told myself that there was nothing to be done – these right-wingers were simply insane. I had no doubt that there would be a deal and the problems would be resolved. History proved that Sharon was right and I was wrong. In matters relating to security, that moved me to the right. Very far to the right.”
How far right?
“When there is a terrorist attack, I am [Yisrael Beiteinu party chair Avigdor] Lieberman. Sometimes to the right of Lieberman. For two days I really love Lieberman. But afterward I come back to reality. Look, I don”t see a solution today. People are saying hudna [truce]. I don”t know what kind of hudna. Or tahadiya [cease-fire], shmahadiya. A cease-fire within a tahadiya within a hudna. Leave it, it”s all stuff and nonsense. And the facts on the ground are the facts on the ground. When your enemy believes in a faith that is rooted in religion, it runs very deep. In this situation I don”t know how to mediate between one nation and the other.
“Look, I don”t even sell cartoons. I sell former cartoons. So what do I know? But I will repeat something you said, which I quote a great deal when I meet all kinds of senators. Our country is the only one that is both an occupier and under an existential threat. That”s the problem. That is the problem. So that even if Israel leaves the territories it won”t be over. The fundamentals of the problem do not lie there. A slice of Gaza and a slice of the West Bank? Bridges above and bridges below? Trains that don”t stop? Therefore we have to learn to live with the conflict. The bottom line is that the most we can hope for are long-term cease-fires.”
Would you try to talk to Hamas?
“That is something I would do. Absolutely. You have to talk to anyone who is willing to talk. But based on a realistic approach.”
Would you leave the Golan Heights in return for an agreement with Syria?
“The security experts have to say whether we can afford to do that or not. Emotionally, there is a problem. There was nothing there, and today it”s all blooming. It would be heartrending to uproot those people. Heartrending. But I think that the final outcome with the Syrians is worth a supreme effort. But only if it includes everything: neutralizing Hezbollah and severing Syria from Iran.”
You meet frequently and quite intimately with Israeli and American decision-makers. What do you tell than about the situation regarding Iran?
“The Iranians are serious. They mean business. Ahmadinejad is not a madman. And every Jew who feels himself to be a Jew lives under the shadow of the Holocaust. That is something that does not leave us. The Holocaust never leaves us. So we are treating Ahmadinejad”s declarations like those of Hitler in the 1930s.”
“Yes, of course. When I see Ahmadinejad, I see Hitler. They speak the same language. His motivation is also clear: the return of the Mahdi is a supreme goal. And for a religious person of deep self-persuasion, that supreme goal is worth the liquidation of five and a half million Jews. We cannot allow ourselves that. Nuclear weapons in the hands of a religious leadership that is convinced that the annihilation of Israel will bring about the emergence of a new Muslim caliphate? Israel cannot allow that. This is no game. It”s truly an existential danger.”
You have a deep knowledge of the United States – will the U.S. take action to stop Iran?
“President Bush has no capital. He doesn”t have the political capital to take a drastic step. We know what the Chinese and the Russians think, and a move by the United States alone – I doubt it. And now, with the Democrats in control of both Houses? I don”t believe it will happen.”
If so, Israel will remain alone. Do you think that in this situation Israel should attack?
“I don”t know how much we can do alone. Can our planes refuel in midair? Can understandings be reached with Turkey? I spoke to all kinds of people who know, or claim they know. They say that we will not permit a situation in which Iran goes nuclear, and that we have answers. How do they put it? The problem has an answer. I don”t know. We had a tiny problem of Katyushas, and that paralyzed half a country. But maybe we have an answer for the big problems and not the small ones. Maybe we will succeed with the nuclear issue where we failed with the Katyushas. But if there is an answer, then I say yes, certainly. I would try other things first, but if they don”t work – then attack.”
Even if the risk is high? Even if the price will be very high?
“Is there a higher price than two nuclear bombs on Israel? So they will fire missiles, all right then. Iran is not Lebanon, where you pinpoint specific targets: this bridge here, that building, half of that courtyard over there. In Iran you go in and wipe out their infrastructure completely. Plunge them into darkness. Cut off their water.”
Do you believe in the ability of the present Israeli leadership to cope with a challenge on this scale?
“I have full confidence in the nation of Israel. It”s a nation of towering stature. I don”t want to sound racist, but we are a very talented nation. We are a terrific nation. There are great people here. I believe that a nation that began with 500,000 people and defeated seven armies and made the desert bloom will also find an answer to this problem.”
I didn”t ask about the nation. I asked about the leadership. Can Ehud Olmert and Amir Peretz cope with the Iranian challenge?
“Olmert and Peretz do not work alone.”
You”re not answering me.
“Would I prefer a defense minister who is capable of looking at a map and saying, “Half a division here, two divisions there, send the commandos from the north and let the navy hit from the south”? Yes, I would prefer that. Because to negotiate with management on behalf of the unions is a skill, but it”s a different skill from planning a war. In our situation, for all time, at least in our lifetime, we need a defense minister who has a thorough understanding of these subjects.”
What about Ehud Olmert?
“He does not have the military expertise that Arik Sharon had. Sharon was a terrific prime minister. First of all as a human being. He”s a sweetheart. I would phone him and he would get back to me in five minutes. He didn”t get into, you know, games. And he had a realistic view of the situation. He had a kind of sense of what yes and what not. What”s possible and what”s not possible. That”s something you”re either born with or not. And Sharon had it. And he had a very special sang-froid. I will not forget how he sat there alone on the chair in the Knesset. It was amazing. What a performance! He showed them all.
“I think Ehud also has sang-froid. I don”t know how much of it is natural or is Arik”s [Sharon”s] influence. But given the fact that he is not a strategist, it”s essential to have someone with military experience in the Defense Ministry. Someone who is familiar with the problems and understands what”s happening.”
If so, you believe in Olmert.
Do you support him?
“Yes, one hundred percent.”
And who would you want at his side?
“Bibi [Benjamin Netanyahu] did wonders for the economy. [Ehud] Barak”s understanding of security matters goes without saying. They both have a contribution to make. If Ehud could form a partnership with them that would not be accompanied by subversiveness, that would be fantastic.”
Are you familiar with the Arcadi Gaydamak phenomenon?
“I don”t know him. Only from TV. You media people are giving him a terrific platform. He did good deeds for a great many people. I hope he will continue to do good without exploiting it for an unworthy goal. Trying to enter politics is an unworthy goal. The fact that you are a millionaire or a billionaire and use your money to gain influence doesn”t give you the qualifications to lead this country, which has been in a crisis since its founding.”
Do you have any desires along those lines? When you see the leadership crisis in Israel, don”t you get the itch to jump in?
“You surprise me. I am not worthy. I don”t think I am worthy. But if there was a government like the United States, and the prime minister formed a government of experts, I would be very happy to be given an opportunity to be minister of public diplomacy.”
Public diplomacy, of all things?
“If someone were to ask me to be finance minister, I would reply, “Ya habibi, what do you want from me? I finished high school. Barely, but I finished. Can I be finance minister? Is that serious? But in public diplomacy I could contribute.”
You said once that you are a one-note person, and that note is Israel. Why?
“You can”t explain love.”
It”s really love?
“More than love. Passion. A love that is passion.”
“When we approach Israel I always ask the pilots of my plane to let me sit in the chair between them. We don”t play “Heveinu Shalom Aleichem,” but when I see the coast coming up my heart starts to go boom, boom, boom.”
Is Israel also part of your everyday life here, in Los Angeles?
“At 9 A.M. I start with London and Kirschenbaum [Channel 10″s evening current events program]. After that, throughout the day, if I see something about Israel on one of the four channels that are always on in my office, on mute, I immediately turn on the sound. And I have Israeli music on my computer, classics and contemporary singers, too.
“Let me tell you a story. A few years ago I got some new albums and I put them on the computer. Suddenly “The Photos in the Album” [sung by Haim Moshe] comes up. I”m standing there, shaving, listening to the lyrics. And the tears stream over the soap, without my even being able to explain why. Grandma, mom cooking, I promised you wouldn”t fight against anyone. A knife in the heart. That is the heart of the nation. And I love this nation. I love the Jewish people, even more the Israeli people. I feel a very deep bond which I can”t explain.”
You are reputed to have a soft spot for combat soldiers.
“I can”t handle combat soldiers: whenever I have any interaction with them, I cry. Really. I swear. I was in the north two months ago and Gal Hirsch [division commander during the war in the north who resigned shortly afterward] did a tour with us. In my estimation what was done to him was absolutely unjust. I don”t know if he made a mistake, but even if he did you don”t take a person like that and throw him in the garbage. He has been in uniform since he was 14, the kid. He gave his whole life to our army. He”s top-notch. Believe me, he”s top-notch.
“So when he spoke to us and explained what happened in the abduction [of two soldiers by Hezbollah] and what happened in the war, I looked at him and cried. I, as an Israeli, would not exist if not for people like that. I strut around like a peacock in America and say I am an Israeli-American. What you hear: an Israeli-American. If not for people like Gal Hirsch I would be in a different situation altogether. I am telling you this in a totally egoistic way. Pulling no punches.”
But you live here, in Los Angeles. You were in Israel for only nineteen years. You left over 30 years ago.
“I can”t explain that. I have no logical explanation. But I tell you that I am not putting on a show. When the tears flow in the bathroom, no one else is there.”
In those nineteen years, was Israel good to you?
“Israel was very hard. We came from Egypt to Hatzor Haglilit. A house with no windows, no windows, and bats flying in.”
Was it better in Egypt?
“It was alright in Egypt. Not great. Dad sold toys and mother was a seamstress – how good could it be? But in Israel it was a lot harder. Dad without a job, grandma blind. When we left Hatzor Haglilit we were five souls in one room next to the Central Bus Station. I got up at 6 A.M. to work as a messenger boy in a travel agency in order to give mom a few pennies to buy food. I studied from 5 to 9:30, and from 9:30 until 11:30 I did homework on the staircase. I would stick a match into the automatic light switch in the stairwell to keep it from going out.”
How hard was it being a Mizrahi [Jew of Middle Eastern descent] in 1960s Israel?
“For some reason I was always with Polish girls. In Ben Shemen [boarding school] there was no problem. Sephardi, Ashkenazi, it wasn”t part of the lexicon. But when I had a Polish girlfriend in a Tel Aviv high school, her mother told her, “If you bring that schwarze haya [black animal] home, I will jump from the balcony.””
Did you suffer from racism?
“No. Other than that incident, there was no racism. But there was the upper crust. Arnon Milchan and Rafi Shauli and that bunch. They had status at the time and they didn”t let others acquire the same status. Today I look back and say, what upper, what crust? A bad joke. But at the time it was something. They looked like the upper crust.”
Is there still an unsettled account with them, a desire to show them?
“No, certainly not.”
It”s said that your competition with Arnon Milchan is some sort of sequel to that story.
“I am not in competition with Milchan.”
In this interview we are trying to speak frankly. Don”t call it competition, call it a game.
“I don”t know how Arnon feels. I”m not in any kind of game with him. Do you know where he was last week? In my house in Acapulco.”