Hillary Clinton to Jewish donors: I’ll be better for Israel than Obama – Kenneth P. Vogel and Tarini Parti/POLITICO
Hillary Clinton is privately signaling to wealthy Jewish donors that — no matter the result of the Iranian nuclear negotiations — she will be a better friend to Israel than President Barack Obama.
But, even as donors increasingly push Clinton on the subject in private, they have emerged with sometimes widely varying interpretations about whether she would support a prospective deal, according to interviews with more than 10 influential donors and fundraising operatives.
With the talks heading into the home stretch in Vienna, the issue is emerging as an early test for Clinton’s presidential campaign. She’s already struggling to balance two of her biggest strengths as a candidate — her deep foreign policy track record and her vaunted fundraising ability — and that balance could become even trickier if there’s a deal.
“Whatever way you go, there will be some people who won’t like it,” said Sarah Kovner, a prominent New York donor who is a leading bundler for Clinton’s campaign and worked in Bill Clinton’s presidential administration. “You can’t have everybody with you. You’ve got to do what you think is right for the country.”
The negotiations are of intense interest for some Jewish donors whose political giving is animated by their support for Israel. They’re being counted on by Clinton’s allies to donate huge sums for a campaign and a pair of supportive super PACs that, taken together, are expected to raise $2 billion or more.
Clinton’s campaign rejected any suggestion that she’s trying to have it both ways on Iran.
“Her support for the negotiating process and touting support for Israel are not contradictory,” said Clinton spokesman Nick Merrill. “A strong deal is good for Israel in her view.”
And several people who’ve heard her address the issue say the fact that different people can come away with such different interpretations is a testament to her nuanced approach to the issue and her skill as a politician, rather than any vacillation on the subject.
“That’s just smart politics,” said one donor who supports the negotiations and recently talked to her about them. “Because, right now, you have the freedom to say all those things, so why would you commit and box yourself in until you saw what the deal was?”
Clinton recently told another pro-deal donor that she was “very supportive of the negotiating process,” the donor recalled, while a third funder said she boasted of her role in starting the talks. “So it seemed like she was supporting it,” recalled the funder.
And, at a Manhattan fundraiser last week featuring a largely Jewish group of donors, Clinton defended Obama against charges he had weakened the U.S.-Israel relationship, asserting that such criticism stemmed from a “perception” problem, according to a donor who was present. But she also suggested that if she were elected president she could correct that problem and bring the two nations closer.
“Diplomacy is all about personal relationships, and I’ve got my own relationships,” she said, referencing her two-decade association with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, an ardent opponent of the Iran deal and, occasionally, of Obama. Clinton even cited her rapport with former Israeli ambassador to the U.S. Michael Oren, who last week published a book that was brutally critical of the Obama administration and was timed for release to try to stymie the Iran deal. “I know Michael well, but I haven’t read the book,” she said.
At a fundraiser last month at the Long Island home of Democratic donor Jay Jacobs, Clinton was asked by an Orthodox rabbi about threats to Israel’s security. “She did stress in no uncertain terms her full and fervent support of the state of Israel and the defense of the state of Israel,” recalled Jacobs. “And the people in the audience who heard it seemed to be comfortable with her answer.”
Likewise, donors at a different New York fundraiser seemed to fully accept her answer to a slightly different question about the U.S. interest in the deal, said billionaire hedge fund manager Marc Lasry, a leading Clinton donor. “She said ‘I’m going to do what’s in the best interest of the U.S.,’ and that was the end of it,” Lasry said.
Dan Berger, a Philadelphia lawyer and major Democratic donor who supports the framework of a deal, cautioned that the interests of the U.S. and Israel, “although close, are not identical. It might not be in the best interest of American Jews, but it’s got to be in the best interest of the majority of the people.” He urged Jewish donors “to take a step back and look at the complexity and judge the agreement based on its merits,” adding: “I’d hope Hillary would judge it based on its merits and not on political support.”
Lasry rejected the suggestion that Clinton would even consider the fundraising implications when assessing any deal.
But Clinton’s senior foreign policy advisers have briefed interested wealthy donors on both the negotiations over the deal and its prospects for congressional approval, according to one donor who recently talked to a top Clinton aide.
“It’s a tricky issue for her,” said the donor who was briefed, arguing that Jewish donors who oppose a deal and favor military intervention in Iran “are going to put her in a box.”
Clinton’s allies are carefully monitoring the sensitivities of a handful of hawkish Democratic mega-donors for signs that the Iran talks may be influencing their willingness to write million-dollar super PAC checks. Chief among that group is billionaire Hollywood entrepreneur Haim Saban, who sources say has spoken multiple times with Clinton and her top aides about the deal.
In April, he strongly suggested that Clinton opposed the deal. “I know where she stands, but I can’t talk about it,” Saban told an Israeli television news channel, adding under questioning, “She has an opinion, a very well-defined opinion. And in any case, everything that she thinks and everything she has done and will do will always be for the good of Israel. We don’t need to worry about this.”
And multiple prominent Jewish donors who joined Saban at a White House meeting with Obama in April to discuss the Iran negotiations said Saban expressed open-mindedness about supporting the deal, though one participant suggested his opinion shouldn’t hold as much weight as those of foreign policy professionals.
“Haim Saban is a very smart businessman who has a tremendous amount of love for the Clintons, but I don’t think he is the most sophisticated policy analyst that there is,” said the donor.
Saban’s representatives did not respond to questions about his interactions with Clinton.
But on Thursday, POLITICO reported that he donated $2 million this year to a super PAC supporting her presidential campaign, which Democratic finance sources interpreted as a sign that Saban’s financial support will not be conditioned on Clinton taking a certain stance on the Iran deal.
Steve Rabinowitz, a Democratic consultant who worked in the Clinton White House and was a co-founder of Jewish Americans Ready for Hillary, argued that the Iran deal isn’t going to be a deciding issue for either donors or voters.
“Do people in my community talk about the Iran deal? Sure. But is it affecting their support for Hillary Clinton? No,” he said. “Iran certainly will — and already has — become a Republican talking point, but it will not move three votes or $3.”
Clinton has the potential to bring along donors like Saban who might have been skeptical of negotiating with Iran, argued the Long Island donor Jacobs. “Hillary has a lot of credibility and support in the Jewish community. It’s broad and deep. People understand that she has fought and has been there as an advocate,” he said. “So when she speaks on the issue, there will be more people in the Jewish community who have perhaps unfairly not appreciated President Obama’s support who will at least give her view a more open-minded assessment.”
If Clinton backs any eventual deal, its proponents will be under pressure to step up their giving — both to the Clinton super PACs and to pro-deal groups — because she is likely to come under heavy fire from deep-pocketed groups that oppose the deal.
“If there’s a deal, and she comes out in favor of it, you can be sure there will be a great deal of fire trained on her,” said Noah Pollak, the executive director of the Emergency Committee for Israel. The conservative group has worked to rally opposition to the talks and this week began airing an ad pressuring New York Democratic Sen. Chuck Schumer, who is considered a key vote on the deal, to oppose it.
The left-leaning Israel advocacy group J Street, which has worked to build support for the deal, is expected to come to the defense of supporters, including potentially Clinton, though on some issues, the group’s members regard her as too hawkish for their tastes.
“For people who speak on these Middle East issues on which we have strong positions, we come to their support and defense on those issues, regardless of party, regardless of candidacy,” said Victor A Kovner, a Democratic donor who chairs J Street’s PAC.
Kovner, like his wife, Sarah Kovner, is backing Clinton, and said he has communicated his support for a deal to the candidate.
“She is familiar with my view, but she has a lot of supporters and advisers on both sides of this question — around the nation, both within the Jewish community and beyond the Jewish community.”