Meet the Family With A Megaphone in US & Israeli Politics (2/2)

TRNN’s Jessica Desvarieux questions the Falic family matriarch Nily Falic on being a top donor to Netanyahu’s and some Democrats’ campaigns, and looks at why more than 50 Democrats boycotted the Israeli Prime Minister’s address while the majority of them attended

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Story Transcript

BENJAMIN NETANYAHU, PRIME MINISTER OF ISRAEL: I know that Israel does not stand alone. I know that America stands with Israel. I know that you stand with Israel.

JESSICA DESVARIEUX, TRNN PRODUCER: Like his speeches of the past, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu got plenty of standing ovations when he addressed Congress on Tuesday.

But there were some empty seats before him, since more than 50 members of Congress–all Democrats, except for Vermont independent senator Bernie Sanders–decided not to attend. Also, Vice President Joe Biden decided not to go, stating that the timing of the prime minister’s address was an appropriate, considering Israeli elections are in a couple of weeks.

Democratic Kentucky Congressman John Yarmouth was one member who wasn’t in attendance, and in a recent radio interview with the Stephanie Miller Show, he said the standing ovations that the prime minister was expected to receive is mostly about fundraising.

JOHN YARMUTH, U.S. REPRESENTATIVE (D-KY): A lot of it has to do with fundraising. I mean, I’m sure some of it is sincere support for Israel. I’m a Jewish member of Congress. I’m a strong supporter of Israel. But my first obligation is to the Constitution of the United States, not to the Constitution of Israel. And, unfortunately, I think, some of the demands that are made of members by AIPAC and some strong Jewish supporters are that we pay more attention–I guess we defer to Israel more than we would defer to the United States.

DESVARIEUX: But is there truth to that? Do donors and lobbying firms set the agenda for lawmakers when it comes to policy related to Israel?

In part one of our series, we introduce you to the Falic family–Nily Falic, Simon Falic, Jerome Falic, and Leon Falic. They are behind the stores called Duty Free Americas that you find at airports. They are also top donors to Netanyahu’s campaign and have helped to raise millions for Democrats and Republicans alike in Congress.

The matriarch of the Falic family, Nily Falic, is the chairperson of the American nonprofit Friends of the Israel Defense Forces, also known as the IDF. With large galas like this one at the Waldorf Astoria in New York, they’ve raised millions of dollars to support IDF soldiers, and critics see these soldiers as being fundamental to keeping the occupation of the West Bank.

The Real News ran into Nily Falic, who was heading to the capital to attend Netanyahu’s speech.

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DESVARIEUX: Ms. Falic, why are you here today?

NILY FALIC, CHAIR, FRIENDS OF THE ISRAEL DEFENSE FORCES: Please. I need some privacy.

DESVARIEUX: Were you invited here? Were you invited here?

UNIDENTIFIED: Excuse me, Ma’am. If you could just–.

DESVARIEUX: I’m a member of the press. I’m following this story. Were you invited here by Prime Minister Netanyahu?

FALIC: No.

DESVARIEUX: Why are you here?

FALIC: My own reasons.

DESVARIEUX: Are you here to support Israel?

FALIC: Always.

DESVARIEUX: Always. And why do you support Israel so strongly?

FALIC: Because she’s our only ally.

DESVARIEUX: In the region.

FALIC: In the region.

DESVARIEUX: Yes. And do you not support peace negotiations with Iran? Do you want to see a deal be formed between Iran and U.S.?

FALIC: Excuse me.

UNIDENTIFIED: I’m so sorry. We’re–.

DESVARIEUX: Do you want to see peace between Iran and the United States and Israel? I know you are a strong donor of Prime Minister Netanyahu. Why do you support him so? You and your family are big supporters. The American people might be interpreting this as donors, that donors are running the United States government, people with a lot of money, deep pockets. Do you know the protesters were not allowed here but you are allowed here? Do you know why that is? You have any comment?

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PROTESTERS: Netanyahu go home!

DESVARIEUX: On the other side of the capital, protesters were rallying to oppose Netanyahu’s speech and the role of big money in politics.

MEDEA BENJAMIN, COFOUNDER, CODEPINK: Congress functions on money. And so they’re very concerned about what AIPAC says. But AIPAC also has a lot of people in states throughout this country who are well organized, and they call in to their representatives. When they heard that people weren’t going to hear Netanyahu, they started bombarding their offices with calls.

So I think it means we have to be more organized. We have to be able to counter AIPAC. We’re not going to counter them with money, but we can counter that with people power.

DESVARIEUX: On Tuesday, AIPAC, which stands for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, was in full force on Capitol Hill. Signs outside congressional buildings let lobbyists and supporters know where to go to meet with lawmakers. They are taking a strong stance against the Iran nuclear negotiations between Iran and the West and are calling for more sanctions. They have the support of Democrats like New Jersey senator Robert Menendez, who addressed AIPAC on Monday during their policy conference.

ROBERT MENENDEZ, U.S. SENATOR (D-NJ): I agree with some Democrats that the political timing of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s invitation to speak to Congress tomorrow may have been unfortunate and that we must work fervently to keep the U.S.-Israel relationship a strong bipartisan endeavor. But I must disagree with those who say the prime minister’s visit to the United States is destructive to U.S.-Israel relations. And tomorrow I will be proud when I escort the prime minister to the House chamber to give his speech, to show him the respect he deserves from every American who cares about our relationship with the only true democracy in the Middle East.

DESVARIEUX: Menendez, along with nine other Democratic senators, penned a letter to President Obama saying that they will not vote on a new sanctions bill against Iran before March 24. That’s a week before the real deadline for a framework deal is to be reached between Iran and the West. Other signatories of this letter included New York senator Charles Schumer and West Virginia senator Joe Manchin.

But why is there such a push for more sanctions, especially before the deadline for a framework deal? Do these Democrats really want to see negotiations succeed? And what role does money from outside donors play in all of this?

We spoke with Center for Responsive Politics money in politics reporter Russ Choma to give us a breakdown on how much the Falic family has given to Democrats.

RUSS CHOMA, REPORTER, CENTER FOR RESPONSIVE POLITICS: The biggest recipients of money were the party committees. And that’s actually true for both sides. But when it comes to the Democrats like the Democratic National Committee, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, we’re the biggest recipients. And these are the party committees that help out individual candidates. And it’s typical with large donors to see them writing checks to these committees. And then the committees go on and pass the money on to an individual candidate. And so it’s a very typical thing to see.

In terms of specific individuals, Democrats, Bob Filner appears to be the biggest recipient. He was a congressman representing San Diego, and he became the mayor of San Diego after that. He was the number-one recipient. Joe Lieberman who was a Democrat until he became an independent, also is the number-two recipient. And the third would be Charlie Gonzalez, who was a Democrat from Texas. And he just left office at the end of this last cycle.

DESVARIEUX: Representative Debbie Wasserman Schultz is one member that has gotten a significant amount of support from the Falic family. As the chair of the DNC and the representative of a Florida district which is the state where the Falics reside, Wasserman Schultz has received more than $30,000 from the Falics for her individual campaign last year. In her top donors list compiled by OpenSecrets, Duty Free Americas is listed as the second-highest donor. Even PACs that she’s led, like the Democrats Win Seats PAC, which raised more than $2 million, the Falics supported as well.

Wasserman Schultz has gotten much of her support from AIPAC and the Jewish Federation of North America, which, combined, spent more than $3.8 million just last year to lobby Congress.

Back in 2011, Wasserman Schultz was a guest speaker at a Greater Miami Jewish Federation summit and found herself amongst pro-Israel supporters who do not support President Obama’s policies in the region.

DEBBIE WASSERMAN SCHULTZ, U.S. REPRESENTATIVE (D-FL): Since coming into office, President Obama has led the way on many of these issues, standing firmly at Israel’s side, supporting her security, and paving the road toward peace.

DESVARIEUX: Wasserman Schultz has found herself in this position before. Last year, she took heat from AIPAC after The Huffington Post reported that she spoke forcefully against is a new Iran sanctions bill in a private meeting. This news set off an action alert by AIPAC, urging members to contact Wasserman Schultz to get her to support new sanctions against Iran.

It appeared that her moves were not pro-Israel enough. But eventually AIPAC’s southeastern states director Mark Kleinman retracted that alert with this statement. Quote, she is a good friend of Israel and a close friend of AIPAC, and we look forward to our continued work together for many years to come.

Now with negotiations underway and a deal between the West and Iran appearing imminent is the power of AIPAC and big donors like the Falic family waning.

And more importantly, does this signal that the Jewish community is not so monolithic on the issue of Israel? According to a recent poll conducted by the self-described pro-Israel and pro-peace lobby J Street, it certainly isn’t. Eighty-four percent of American Jews favor a deal with Iran. They would like to see tough sanctions on the Iranian economy alleviated in exchange for Iran’s agreement to limit its nuclear program to civilian purposes and accept inspectors at its nuclear facilities, a viewpoint Code Pink founder Medea Benjamin says is rarely given a platform, like the one served up to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

M. BENJAMIN: Netanyahu doesn’t represent me as a Jew, and Netanyahu shouldn’t be interfering in the affairs of the U.S. government that’s trying to come to a peaceful settlement with Iran.

So I think it’s wrong that he’s here speaking. We are not part of his election campaign. He shouldn’t be here using us as stunts in his campaign. And he shouldn’t be here trying to get our congresspeople to be giving him standing ovations for his undermining of negotiations that our administration is involved in.

DESVARIEUX: For The Real News Network, Jessica Desvarieux, Washington.

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DISCLAIMER: Please note that transcripts for The Real News Network are typed from a recording of the program. TRNN cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.