No one was surprised to see Republican hawk Lindsey Graham, or even Mitt Romney, line up to kiss Sheldon Adelson’s ring at the Israel-American Council conference in Washington last weekend. Adelson has urged that the United States drop nuclear weapons on Iran as a “negotiating” tactic; he dreams that his son will be a sniper in the Israeli army; he is basically the kind of hawk with maximal loyalties to Israel and minimal ones to the United States that one might wish held no position of honor in the Republican Party. But alas he does. In a better world a Sheldon Adelson event might receive no more attention from prominent Republicans than a David Duke conference, but we’re long past that point. The Romney and Graham speeches blasting Obama’s diplomacy towards Iran received headlines of the dog bites man nature.
But the Twittersphere was set aflame at the Sunday plenary session, where Adelson held court with fellow billionaire and Israel supporter Haim Saban. Saban does not have the public persona of Adelson. The Power Ranger mogul is a major Democratic Party donor, perhaps the largest of all. He sponsors something called the Saban Center at Brookings, which provides a think tank gloss to pro-Israeli perspectives, but also funds some genuine scholarship. He is on first-name terms with the liberal hawk or liberal internationalist elite, “Tony” and “Shimon” and of course “Hillary.” You can get a sense of Saban’s world from the fulsome video made to introduce Hillary when she spoke two years ago at the Saban Center—where she received a parade of warm endorsements from Israeli politicians well known in the U.S. It was the first concrete sign, many noted, that Hillary was really interested in running for the presidency in 2016.
But last weekend here was Saban, Democratic mogul, on stage alongside Sheldon Adelson, the two performing sort of duet: One could title it “Pity the Zionist Billionaires Who Can’t Always Get What They Want.” Adelson claimed the Palestinian were an “invented people” Saban came back with the retort that in the event of a “bad” Iran nuclear deal, Bibi “should bomb the living daylights of the sons of bitches [the Iranians].” When Saban mentioned that there were actually a lot of Palestinians between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean, Adelson retorted with “So Israel won’t be a democratic state, so what.” (One might at least credit him with candor not usually evident among Israel’s most vociferous right wing supporters, fond of touting Israel as a democracy which shares American values.) The two talked of measures to squelch the rapidly expanding BDS movement, movement to boycott Israel either in full or part to pressure it to end the occupation. (The First Amendment might pose a problem here.)
The two naturally agreed that the American media was terribly biased against Israel, except for maybe Fox News, and that they discussed whether they could buy the Washington Post or New York Times to correct the problem. This aspect of the performance was comic, the lament, commonplace enough among neoconservatives, that the American press is biased against Israel. Consider that the Washington Post runs (the Wall Street Journal aside), the most neoconservative major editorial page in the country, and it’s been a long time since someone that one can even conceive of being slightly sympathetic to those subjected to Israeli occupation (perhaps the late Mary McGrory?) has written there. The Times is more diverse and makes occasionally sincere efforts at both balance and objective journalism, but if one looks at the roster of Times-men who regularly cover Israel, one could conclude that having a child serving in the IDF is a job requirement.
Sheldon and Haim then amused themselves and their audience by talking about taking over the Times and Washington Post.
The whole affair might have been comical but for the serious issues it raises for presumed Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton. Haim Saban is her close friend and major financial backer: one could go so far as to say that he and his donor circle constitute her “base” or at least a significant part of it. One question any inquisitive journalist might ask of Hillary is: What does she think of Haim Saban’s wish that Israel “bomb the daylights” out of Iran if Bibi doesn’t approve of a nuclear deal reached with Tehran by the United States and the other P5+1 countries? Since Bibi’s disapproval is virtually guaranteed (Israel insists that it be the only nuclear-capable country in the region), would she have that the United States support and even assist Israel bombing the daylights out of Iran, right after the United States signs a deal with the Iranian government? Or does she reject the counsel of her major backer? Saban’s partner on stage has urged that the United States drop nuclear bombs on Iran as a negotiating tactic. What does Hillary think of this?
Hillary has never paid a political price for her ties to right-wing Israel supporters, though she has reaped the usual benefits. Might the American political culture be ready to turn on this, at least to the extent that she will no longer get a free pass? The Twittersphere agog at the Sheldon and Haim show was largely a liberal Jewish one, journalists and writers who are hardly hostile to Israel, but are increasingly dismayed as the Israeli right wing entrenches itself in power while becoming ever more extreme. Its numbers are small, but it speaks for an influential slice of Democratic Party elite opinion—supportive of the two state solution, of negotiating with Iran. A recent J Street-sponsored poll found that 84 percent of American Jews backed an Iran deal which restricts Iranian nuclear enrichment and subjected Iran’s nuclear sites to inspection. But Adelson and Saban do not.
Where does Hillary stand, with her financial backers or the more mainstream opinion of the Democratic Party? It’s a question worth watching in the presidential year to come.
Scott McConnell is a founding editor of The American Conservative.