The reported efforts by a "suspected Israeli operative" to get Rep. Jane Harman (D-Calif.) to quash an espionage prosecution into AIPAC hinge on Haim Saban, an Israeli-American billionaire. Who is he?
According to the story thus far, the Israeli agent whose phone was being tapped by the NSA promised Harman that, if she could get the Department of Justice to abandon its prosecution of two former AIPAC staffers, Saban would use his influence with then-minority leader Nancy Pelosi to keep Harman in her leadership seat on the House intelligence committee.
Even in a town of bigger-than-life personalities, media mogul Haim Saban stands out — lion-like in demeanor, furiously determined and unshakably loyal to those people and causes in which he fervently believes.
Those causes: Israel, the Democratic Party and medical philanthropy — in that order. And he has a history of putting his vast fortune behind all three.
Saban has a reputation as a brutal businessman. In person, he projects all the charm and terror of Ian McShane's Deadwood character Al Swearengen. Once, according to an excellent Portfolio profile from last year, while negotiating with Kiss' Gene Simmons over the rights to Kiss characters for use in a cartoon, Saban turned to his partner and said, in Hebrew, "Now we gut him." Saban didn't know that Simmons, who was present, was Israeli and spoke Hebrew.
Another way to put it is that Saban decided to buy himself a foreign policy. He has personally paid more money to politicians than any other American—$13 million since 1999, according to Portfolio—all with the avowed intent of ensuring that the U.S. will support Israel no matter what Israel does. Saban told Portfolio that his grudging support of Barack Obama in the 2008 election was premised on being reassured that Obama had a "visceral commitment, as opposed to a logical or strategic one," to the Jewish state.
Saban was born in Egypt, moved to Israel in 1956, and landed in America in 1983. He started his career as a musician and promoter, playing bass in an Israeli Beatles cover band called the Lions. He began making his fortune by buying the rights to background music in children's cartoons, and is credited as the "composer" for more than 3,700 theme songs and cues—meaning he gets paid every time they are aired—but the Hollywood Reporter reported in 1998 that he simply paid the actual composers a one-time fee for the rights and the credit. (That's not an uncommon arrangement in Hollywood, but a number of composers threatened to sue Saban, according to Portfolio, and he settled for $10,000 to each of them.)
Saban's interest in cartoon music led him to discover the Might Morphin' Power Rangers in Japan in the mid-1990s, which made him a fortune when he brought it to the United States. He parlayed that into a deal with Fox to purchase Pat Robertson's Family Channel, which they sold to Disney in 2001 for more than $5 billion. He is currently an owner and chairman of Univision, the Spanish-language broadcaster.
He applies the same attitude to his political machinations. During the 2008 Democratic primary campaign, when it looked like superdelegates were going to decide the race, Saban reportedly offered the Young Democrats of America—which controlled two superdelegate votes—$1 million if they would support Hillary Clinton. Saban denied it. Nor is his political largesse limited to the U.S.—he reportedly paid $120,000 to Shimon Peres' prime minister campaign in 2006 in exchange for help in purchasing the Israeli communications company Bezeq.
In 2002, Saban launched the Saban Center for Middle East Policy, an arm of the Brookings Institution, with a $13 million grant. It served as a sort of left-wing cover operation for proponents of the invasion of Iraq, employing liberal hawks like Kenneth Pollack, whose book The Threatening Storm: The Case for Invading Iraq was influential in bringing Democrats on board with the Bush Adminsitration's plans.
Personally, Saban is a boisterous showman. The gardens at his Beverly Hills estate are modeled after the ones at Versailles. When he learned in 2000 that a $250,000 donation to the Democratic National Committee had been bested by someone else who gave $500,000, he sent another check for $250,000 plus a $1 bill: "No. 2 doesn't fly for me," he told Portfolio. He's married to a shiksa wife, and the family buys a Christmas tree every year.
It's not surprising that Saban is wrapped up in the Harman story—he's been at the center of Israeli advocacy in the U.S. for decades. But it is odd that Israeli intelligence—if that's what the sources describing the wiretaps are referring to when they say "suspected Israeli operative"—would engage such a well-known and colorful figure in a highly sensitive operation.