Saturday, July 11, 2015

Hillary Clinton and Haim Saban: a Question of Judgement?

In Las Vegas, in early June 2015, pro-Israel billionaire activists, including casino magnate Sheldon Adelson and Hollywood executive Haim Saban, gathered donors willing to pledge at least $1 million over the next two years to fight the boycott, divestment, and sanction (BDS) movement on college campuses in the United States and Europe. 

Haim Saban has been an important donor to the Democratic Party and the Clintons personally since 2002. He also supports a pro-Israel think tank at the Brookings Institute and various charitable causes in Israel and the U.S. As outlined by Connie Bruck in a New Yorker profile (May 2010), in 2002 he donated $7 million to the Democratic National Committee for construction of its new building, he donated $2 million to the Clinton library; he has contributed at least $5 million to the Clinton foundation; and he apparently has paid hundreds of thousands to the Clintons for speaking fees. 

Where does this money come from?  The New Yorker profile traces Saban's fortune in part to tax fraud.  Saban sold his share of Fox Kids Network to Michael Eisner of Disney in late 2001 for a $1.5 billion profit. The New Yorker profile suggests that Saban failed to pay approximately $405,000,000 in capital gains taxes (27%) due on this transaction in 2001. He used a fraudulent tax shelter to avoid paying this tax. In a subsequent tax investigation in 2009, Saban claimed ignorance that this was wrong and that he relied on the advice of counsel. He paid $250 million to settle with the government, although that seems to be considerably less than the taxes that were owed as characterized by Saban's lawyer in the 2001 transaction and reported in the New Yorker profile. More importantly, according to the Wiki timeline, in the intervening nine years Saban put the money to profitable use.  He acquired ProSieben1, a German media conglomerate at 7.5 Euros/share in 2003 and sold it at 22.4 Euros/share  in 2007; and he purchased Univision television and other interests that form the basis of his $3.5 billion fortune today.  In a lawsuit, Saban's former lawyer alleged: "Haim Saban, believing he is above the law, has spent decades trying to avoid paying taxes on the many billions of dollars in income he has received, evidencing little restraint in his conduct other than seeking a convenient scapegoat.” I believe the man. Ultimately how many of these tax avoidance schemes that Saban took advantage of skirted the law, and how many outright broke the law, we'll never know. Either way, Saban seems to have paid far less in taxes on his riches than is fair or reasonable.

In short, it appears Saban is being "generous" with the People's money! 

The Clintons' are happy to consider Saban a patriot in exchange for some of his loot. Last week Hillary Clinton wrote a fawning letter to Saban, inviting him to "work together" to fight BDS. The letter went on to state that there should be no outside pressure on Israel to solve the Israel/Palestinian issue; that the conflict should be left to the negotiation between the parties; that comparing Israel and South Africa is abhorrent; that the UN report on the 2009 "Operation Cast Lead" Gaza conflict (the "Goldstone Report") was "biased;" and that, of course Israel should have the right to defend itself "like any other country" (which manages in one blow to imply support both for Israel's serial destruction of Gaza and Netanyahu's obsessive raging against Iran).  

According to Peter Beinart  Clinton sent similar letters "to at least two other Jewish organizational officials." The letter hits all the buzz-words that any staunch supporter of Netanyahu, the occupation, and ethnocratic Israel at the expense of Palestinians would want to hear. 

As Beinart notes, Haim Saban is not an expert on Israel/Palestine or the Middle East. He is a guy with a high school education who has made a lot of money, and appears not to have paid his fair share of taxes and who, by his own description is a one issue guy; and that issue is Israel. Or as Beinart puts it: "He’s a mega-donor who thinks Barack Obama has been bad for Israel. .... Saban was so suspicious of Obama’s views on Iran in 2008 that he considered backing John McCain. Saban’s preferred approach: 'I would bomb the daylight out of these sons of bitches.'”

On Israel policy there is no daylight between Saban who supports the Democrats, and Sheldon Adelson who supports the Republicans. They are both in bed with Netanyahu, with military occupation, and with ethnocracy. They are not believers in a democracy that includes Palestinians, they are actively opposed to Palestinian rights, indeed they deny the very existence of Palestinians as a people. On Iran, both men don't want to hear talk of negotiation, they want to hear the sound of bombs falling.

Are Adelson and Saban people that presidents should be looking to for Middle East policy advice? Apparently Hillary Clinton thinks so. It's not a matter of necessity. As Bruck details in her profile of Saban, Obama kept Saban at a distance. He did not rely on Adelson money or on Saban money for his elections. Hillary Clinton is choosing to dance to a different tune.

All of this brings into question Hillary Clinton's judgement when it comes to the Middle East. As we know, she voted for the invasion of Iraq in 2003. In the 2008 campaign she refused to acknowledge the vote as a mistake; now she does.  However, this letter to Saban leaves one to wonder whether her judgment has improved.

Beinart thinks Clinton's implicit support of the occupation and the fight against BDS is counterproductive and bad for Israel. Signing up with Saban and Adelson, says Beinart, "is disastrous" because Adelson and Saban are shutting out the very voices and constituencies with whom BDS enjoys credibility.  The Adelson/Saban approach, worries Beinart, will be counter-productive and will ultimately make the BDS movement more potent.  If Hillary Clinton were serious about fighting BDS, says Beinart, Saban would be the last person she'd ask. She'd be looking for ways to impose a two state solution from the outside.

.... Hillary is signaling that she may oppose Obama if he backs a two-state resolution at the UN this fall.  [She implies] that left to their own devices, others in the Obama administration might not have come to Israel’s aid. It all adds up to a hint that if the White House backs a two-state resolution at the Security Council this fall, the woman who says America must “defend Israel at every turn” at the UN will make her opposition known. 
But if Hillary really wants to stop the growth of BDS, she should be thrilled by the prospect of a two-state resolution at the UN. The “outcome [to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict] can only be achieved through direct negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians,” she writes. “It cannot be imposed from the outside or by unilateral actions.” This is nonsense. An outcome is being imposed, every day, by Israel’s unilateral expropriation of land in the West Bank, much of it owned by individual Palestinians, which Israel then doles out to Jewish settlers, thus making a viable Palestinian state harder and harder to achieve.

The only way to prevent this Israeli unilateralism is through solutions “imposed from the outside.” .... How can direct negotiations possibly succeed when Benjamin Netanyahu has explicitly and repeatedly said that he doesn’t support a Palestinian state anytime soon, and doesn’t support one near the 1967 lines ever? The only way to make direct negotiations meaningful is to force Netanyahu, or some Israeli successor, back into the paradigm outlined by Bill Clinton and the Arab Peace Initiative [in the Oslo process] ....
Unless that framework is “imposed from the outside,” people morally opposed to Israel’s occupation of the West Bank will see no hope for ending it without BDS. And they will gradually embrace the movement, even though it goes beyond the two-state solution to question the legitimacy of Israel as a Jewish state within any borders. 
The Obama administration, by signaling that it may support such a UN framework this fall, is pursuing the best alternative to BDS that exists today. If Hillary helps torpedo that UN initiative, Haim Saban should look forward to more letters from her about BDS in the future. Because the Democratic presidential frontrunner will have done her part to help it grow.
Gershom Gorenberg is similarly left scratching his head. He notes how in 2008 Clinton issued policy paper swearing fealty to Jerusalem as the undivided capital of the Jewish state, how as Secretary of State she jettisoned that myth and failed to register U.S. citizens born in Jerusalem as "born in Israel."  But what will she do as President?
Hillary, I understand that you need to satisfy donors and swing voters. Someone like me, who lives far away and will merely bear the impact of decisions you make as president, hardly matters. Still, I'd like to know: As president, will you draw the distinction between Israel and the settlements, between boycotting one and boycotting the other? Will you treat criticism of Israeli policy as anti-Semitism or as a necessary corrective? Will you be ready to confront Israel's government for the sake of Israel's future, or will you prefer to keep the donors happy for 2020?  Your letter [to Saban] may answer all the questions that Saban has. It doesn't answer mine. Frankly, it makes me nervous.
Over the course of his Presidency Obama has successfully gotten Iran to halt its pursuit of a nuclear weapon and he has made efforts to normalize relations and bring Iran back into the international community. This effort has been shrilly opposed by Israel. Hillary Clinton has at times opposed the Obama administration's approach on Iran. How would she balance her unceasing commitment to Israeli neoconservatives with America's policy interests in the region as president? There are more questions than answers.

In Syria as with Iraq, it's clear Hillary's instincts have been considerably more hawkish than Obama's. Hawkish instincts proved a disaster in the wake of September 9, 2001. The fact that Clinton is unable to distance herself from Saban and Adelson, buffoons who don't know what they're talking about on BDS, leaves room for worry about how Hillary Clinton's hawkish instincts would serve the country if she were president for the next four or eight years.

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