Haim Saban, 63, is a self-made billionaire and media mogul perhaps best known for producing "The Power Rangers." Born in Egypt, during the 1956 Suez War he fled with his family to Israel, where he lived for 17 years. Saban amassed his fortune in the United States and today heads the Saban Capital Group, an investment firm that controls media companies worldwide. A well-known supporter of the Democratic Party, Saban is a firm believer in tightening American-Israeli relations.
Aside from his business commitments, he is founder of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy, headed by former U.S. ambassador to Israel Martin Indyk, at the Brookings Institution in Washington. This week Saban will be hosting the three-day annual Saban Forum, an American-Israeli dialogue that will most likely comprise the last round of high-level talks before the anticipated Annapolis summit in late November. Participants include Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Mideast mediator and former British prime minister Tony Blair and Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad.
Saban spoke to NEWSWEEK's Joanna Chen in Jerusalem about the forum, his own efforts for peace in the Middle East and life in the shadow of the Power Rangers. Excerpts:
What will be the major issues discussed at the forum?
The title is "War and Peace in the Middle East." We know that Iran is arming itself with nuclear weapons. And we have the Iraq problem, the Hizbullah problem, Syria. Overall the significant role of the Islamic extremists creates an environment of war, a feeling in the air that things may explode any day. On the other hand, the kind of pressure that has been created mainly by Iran has awoken some of the Arab countries to come forward with the Arab peace initiative and for the first time ever to agree on a certain condition of recognizing Israel's right to exist, so here comes the peace opportunity. What we will be discussing is how those two dynamics work: war on the one hand that is knocking on our door on an ongoing basis, and how that pressure has created what could be opportunities for peace.
What do you hope to achieve? Do you have any ideas to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?
We are hoping for an exchange of ideas toward peace in the Middle East. If only one comes out we've achieved our goal. They're not waiting for me to come in and say "Go ahead, do this or do that." My contribution is bringing people from the American side, the Israeli side and the Palestinian side together so that out of those debates and discussions some ideas will come out.
Ahead of the Annapolis summit, are there lessons to be learned from Camp David?
I don't believe [former Palestinian leader Yasir] Arafat had any desire or any attempt to really get something done. He was not a courageous man. It's going to take somebody so courageous because the issues are so sensitive, so emotional.
And today is there a partner for peace?
There is a partner who wants to make peace. Whether he is able to make peace remains to be seen.
Why do you personally need to do this?
I think that the answer is in your question. I need it. I need to have the feeling that I'm not just sitting on the sidelines and enjoying the fruits of my labor. It's not that I don't enjoy the material things of life, but it's just not enough. I need the feeling that I'm contributing something. It's very gratifying.
You define yourself as an Israeli-American and feel a strong connection to Israel.
I have an incredible love for Israel, but an even bigger love for the Jewish people. I'm not religious by any stretch of the imagination, but I'm Jewish and proud of my heritage. America has been good to me from day one. I love being an American, and it's relatively easy to be an Israeli-American, for there is never a question of your loyalty on the fundamental questions. These are the two strongest allies in the world, in my view at least.
The Israel lobby has been accused of influencing U.S. policy decisions at the expense of American interests in the Middle East.
People have also said that Jews have horns. But it has nothing to do with reality. Absolutely zero. These are either people who are totally misinformed or total anti-Semites.
What is the greatest threat to Israel today?
I don't think today there is an existential threat to Israel. We have to be pragmatic about this … The Europeans know that today Iran's missiles cover the whole of Europe, and they know by 2015 their missiles will reach the U.S. I don't think Russia wants a nuclear power on their borders and I don't think the world is about to have a nuclear Middle East. So the existential threat to Israel is a bit inflated today.
What was the most important lesson you learned from your parents?
Family comes before everything else. We lived in one [tiny] room, the four of us and my blind grandmother. I learned that no matter what you take care of your own. This is definitely something that my parents instilled in me.
Do you feel that people still associate you with the Power Rangers?
Can you believe this? People don't come to me and say, "Wow, you own the biggest broadcasting group in Germany, you own the biggest Hispanic broadcasting group in the U.S." No one ever says that to me. They say, "Oh, Power Rangers." But as long as they don't tie my name to the Ku Klux Klan, I'm good.