Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton expressed great pride in making enemies of “the Iranians” during this week’s Democratic Party debate. When asked “which enemy are you most proud of?” by CNN debate moderator Anderson Cooper, Clinton listed the NRA, health insurance companies, drug companies, and – finally – “the Iranians” as the actors she’s most pleased to have antagonized. This may strike some as a strange statement from the country’s former chief diplomat – particularly in light of her support, albeit tepid, of the recent Iranian nuclear agreement.
Why would a past Secretary of State – a position dedicated, at least in part, to improving the United States’ relations with other nations – boast of an adversarial relationship with a key Middle Eastern geopolitical power in the aftermath of a historic diplomatic breakthrough?
Insight into that question may be gleaned from just a cursory look at the Clinton campaign’s principal donors. Israeli-American entertainment mogul Haim Saban, and his wife Cheryl, have contributed approximately $2 million to Priorities USA Action – a SuperPAC financing Clinton’s presidential bid. Saban is a self-proclaimed “one-issue guy” and, according to him, his issue is Israel. Describing a conversation he had with then-candidate Barack Obama in 2008, Saban relayed the following anecdote to New Yorker staff writer Connie Bruck:
“Obama was asked the same question Hillary was asked —‘If Iran nukes Israel, what would be your reaction?’ Hillary said, ‘We will obliterate them.’ We . . . will . . . obliterate . . . them. Four words, it’s simple to understand. Obama said only three words. He would ‘take appropriate action.’ I don’t know what that means…I need to understand what that means. So I had a list of questions like that. And Chicago could not organize that meeting. ‘Schedule, heavy schedule.’ I was ready and willing to be helpful, but ‘helpful’ is not to write a check for two thousand three hundred dollars. It’s to raise millions, which I am fully capable of doing. But Chicago wasn’t able to deliver the meeting, so I couldn’t get on board.”
Throughout Obama’s presidency, Saban has remained critical of what he perceives to be the President’s failure to more vigorously defend Israel’s purported strategic interests. In contrast, Saban has expressed optimism regarding Clinton’s intention and ability to repair the relationship between the White House and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government. “I have told her and everybody who’s asked me, ‘Whatever it takes, we’re going to be there’…I think she would be a fantastic president for the United States, an incredible world leader and one under whom I believe — deeply — the relationship with the U.S. and Israel will be significantly reinforced,” said Saban in an interview with the Washington Post.
Saban clearly understands the uniquely powerful role that donations play in shaping a candidate’s policy positions – in this case, Clinton’s stance towards Israel’s professed enemies, namely Iran and the Palestinians. Clinton’s Iran debate remarks, as well as her recent statements on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, seem to vindicate Saban’s formula for influencing American politics – a formula he outlined at a 2009 conference in Israel. In Saban’s words, the “three ways to be influential in American politics are to make donations to political parties, establish think tanks, and control media outlets.”
However, while Saban’s money will likely continue to exert influence on Clinton’s Israel-related campaign messaging throughout the Democratic presidential primary race, her hawkish stance may not resonate as strongly with progressive voters. A Gallup poll released this past February found that “less than half of Democrats — 48 percent — say they sympathize more with Israelis than Palestinians when it comes to tensions in the Middle East.” Similarly, a Pew Research poll conducted in the midst of Israel’s 2014 assault on Gaza found that a majority of young Americans, as well as African Americans and Hispanics, blamed Israel for the eruption of violence.
Describing his own politics, Saban has stated that “there’s no right or left when it comes to Israel.” While that may be true for him and many members of our establishment political class, Secretary Clinton should bear in mind that this may not apply to a younger and increasingly diverse Democratic electorate that has grown more critical of the Netanyahu government’s far-right zealotry as well as the United States’ role in supporting and subsidizing Israeli policy.