If Arab Spring Threatens Israel, Why Does Saban Support It?

“The test of a first-rate intelligence,” F. Scott Fitzgerald famously wrote, “is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.” When it comes to what’s been dubbed the “Arab Spring,” most Middle East analysts pass Fitzgerald’s test with flying colours.

Hardly anyone would dispute the claim that Haim Saban cares deeply about Israel. After all, the Egyptian-born Israeli-American media mogul has admitted to the New York Times, “I’m a one-issue guy and my issue is Israel.” A New Yorker profile last year elaborated:

His greatest concern, he says, is to protect Israel, by strengthening the United States-Israel relationship. At a conference last fall in Israel, Saban described his formula. His ‘three ways to be influential in American politics,’ he said, were: make donations to political parties, establish think tanks, and control media outlets.

The think tank part of Saban’s tripartite Israel-protection formula was initiated in 2002 with a pledge of nearly $13 million to the Brookings Institution to establish the Saban Center for Middle East Policy. In 2007, the Saban Center expanded operations with the launch of the Brookings Doha Center. Its Qatar-based project was inaugurated in February 2008 by the founding director of the Saban Center, Martin Indyk. A former research director at the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), Indyk had previously founded the AIPAC-created Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP).

All three experts at the Brookings Doha Center — its director, deputy director and director of research — are fellows at the pro-Israel Saban Center, while two of the three have close ties to Washington’s “democracy promotion” establishment. The center’s deputy director, Ibrahim Sharqieh, previously managed a long term USAID development project in Yemen, as well as a U.S. State Department Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI) civic education project. According to a March 12 report in the Washington Post detailing U.S. support for Arab democrats, USAID grants “proved vital to activists in a half-dozen Arab lands,” financing, for example, the training by groups such as the National Democratic Institute (NDI), the International Republican Institute (IRI) and Freedom House of up to 80 percent of the leaders of the Egyptian uprising. MEPI, according to an April 18 Washington Post report, has funneled up to $6 million to Syrian opposition groups since 2006. As further testament to Haim Saban’s contribution to Middle East democracy, MEPI is currently headed by Tamara Wittes, formerly director of the Saban Center’s Middle East Democracy and Development (MEDD) Project.

Shadi Hamid, the Doha center’s director of research, is aptly described as an expert on democratization in the Middle East. Prior to working for the Saban Center, he was a Hewlett Fellow at Stanford University’s Center on Democracy, Development, and the Rule of Law (CDDRL). CDDRL’s director, Larry Diamond, is the founding co-editor of the National Endowment for Democracy’s Journal of Democracy and a longtime advocate of Arab democracy. Hamid was also director of research at the Project on Middle East Democracy (POMED), whose board of advisors, reading like a who’s who of the democracy promotion establishment, includes Diamond and the NDI and IRI presidents. Hamid has also served as a program specialist on public diplomacy at the U.S. State Department. James Glassman, the former Undersecretary for Public Diplomacy who brought Middle Eastern pro-democracy activists to New York for the inaugural Alliance of Youth Movements (AYM) summit in 2008, viewed public diplomacy as “the direct or indirect engagement of foreign publics to support national security objectives,” while observing that “it’s a lot easier to be influential when others are making the pronouncements.”

On its international advisory council, the Brookings Doha Center boasts such luminaries of democracy promotion as Madeleine Albright. The former U.S. Secretary of State currently chairs the NDI, the Democratic affiliate of the quasi-governmental National Endowment for Democracy (NED). As Kenneth Timmerman candidly admitted in 2009, “The National Endowment for Democracy has spent millions of dollars during the past decade promoting ‘color’ revolutions in places such as Ukraine and Serbia, training political workers in modern communications and organizational techniques.” During the protests in Egypt, Albright was interviewed by Rachel Maddow on MSNBC, one of the corporate sponsors of Movements.org, the AYM’s online hub which supports the activities of pro-democracy digital activists. Considering her lack of scruples about the sanctions-induced deaths of 500,000 Iraqi children, Albright’s condemnation of the Mubarak regime’s brutality has to be taken with a grain of salt. More importantly, however, the NDI chair acknowledged that her democracy-promoting organization had been “working within Egypt for a long time.”

From the beginning of the Arab uprisings, the Brookings Doha Center has been churning out commentaries with titles like “Saleh Falls,” “In Syria, Assad Must Exit the Stage” and “If United States Doesn’t Make Qaddafi Go, Who Will?” which leave little doubt about their stance. In a recent Washington Post report, which reads more like an editorial in support of the Arab Spring, the center’s director, Salman Shaikh, warns, “If these Arab revolutions do become a footnote, and if people do become frustrated and see no light at the end of the tunnel, I don’t know where it could lead in terms of people thinking of al-Qaeda.”

Yet few Middle East observers seem to be asking: If the Arab Spring is backed so unreservedly by Haim Saban’s think tank, which was created to protect Israel, then how could it possibly threaten Israeli interests?

Maidhc Ó Cathail writes extensively on U.S. foreign policy and the Middle East. Read other articles by Maidhc, or visit Maidhc's website.