Meet the Family with a Megaphone in US & Israeli Politics (1/2)

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With 90 percent of Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu’s campaign donors being U.S. Americans, the Falic family tops the list, and their influence reaches both sides of the aisle in Congress

Story Transcript

JESSICA DESVARIEUX, TRNN PRODUCER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Jessica Desvarieux in Washington, coming to you from Capitol Hill. This is where Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will be addressing Congress in a joint session next month. This is causing quite a stir on Capitol Hill, since a growing number of members of Congress are deciding to boycott the prime minister’s speech.

But here at The Real News, we want to get beyond the drama and talk about the real story. So we decided to follow the money from Israel to Capitol Hill to understand the role of outside donors.

It only takes a quick Google search of Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s top donors to find that 90 percent of them are Americans. That’s according to the Israeli State Comptroller. And when you take a closer look at who these top donors are, you find that one family’s name is repeated four times. They are the Falic family–Nily Falic, Simon Falic, Leon Falic, and Jerome Falic.

The family owns the chain of stores and airports known as Duty Free Americas, where they sell tax-free goods. The brothers also own the French fashion design house Christian Lacroix and the license to distribute Perry Ellis brand fragrances and cosmetics. Leon Falic also sits on the board of directors of Forbes magazine.

Mondoweiss journalist Alex Kane wrote an article about this family’s wealth and how they’re using it to meet their political goals.

ALEX KANE, ASST. EDITOR, MONDOWEISS: Leon Falic, one of the members of the family, bought the company in 2001, and it’s a bit of a family affair. And a lot of that wealth goes to their foundation, which they use to fund a variety of pro-Israel, pro-West Bank settlement causes.

DESVARIEUX: These causes include the expansion of settlements and policy that does not support a negotiation between the West and Iran, but, rather, harsher sanctions, and potentially military intervention in the region.

The matriarch of the Falic family is Nily Falic. She is the chairperson of the American nonprofit Friends of the Israel Defense Forces (also known as IDF). With large galas like this one at the Waldorf Astoria in New York, they’ve raised millions of dollars to support IDF soldiers. In an interview with Shalom TV, Nily Falic expressed how the cause is dear to her.

NILY FALIC, CHAIRPERSON, FRIENDS OF IDF: I remember very well the War of Independence. And the child of war matures very fast and remembers. And I remember as a child living in a town that was both–Tiberias, heavily populated with Arab and Jews at the time. And my memories are war memories. So I remember not being as comfortable as Israeli children are today.

DESVARIEUX: The Falics are involved with causes like this one, as well as others, like the Women’s International Zionist Organization, which is Israel’s largest nongovernmental service provider. These organizations are known as humanitarian. But Kane says there’s more to them than meets the eye.

KANE: Perhaps on the face of it you could say this is humanitarian work, but when you look into what the Israeli army’s actually doing and what these sort of care packages and this money going to be IDF does, it’s clear that this is not an apolitical project. This is a project aimed at bolstering the morale of soldiers in an army that have been occupying the West Bank for the past four decades and more.

DESVARIEUX: But it’s not only in Israel where this family’s making their name known. For example, last year, when then current Israeli president Shimon Peres received the Congressional Gold Medal, part owner of Duty Free Americas Simon Falic was one of the speakers at the reception.

KANE: So, last year, Simon Falic spoke at an event in Washington, D.C. The event brought together many members of Congress to give what’s called the Congressional Gold Medal to Shimon Peres, the former Israeli president. The Congressional Gold Medal went to him because of his stature as an Israeli leader and his role in bolstering the U.S.-Israel relationship. And so Simon Falic’s presence there and his speech there shows the close ties between the Falic family and the Israeli government, close ties, of course, which are most prominent when you look at the donors to Benjamin Netanyahu–you know, something like $11,000 that they donated to Netanyahu for his last primary election campaign in Israel. And that may not seem like a lot by American standards, but that is the limit in Israel.

DESVARIEUX: But those limits aren’t the same in the United States. After the Supreme Court loosened the rules for campaign cash to candidates in Citizens United and McCutcheon, the limit for donations has gotten even higher.

We spoke with Center for Responsive Politics money and politics reporter Russ Choma to give us a breakdown of how much the Falic family spends on campaigns.

RUSS CHOMA, CENTER FOR RESPONSIVE POLITICS: So Simon is the family member who’s given the most, about $546,000. And then Leon has also given more than a half a million dollars. And then there’s two others who’ve given several hundred thousand dollars apiece as well.

DESVARIEUX: Most of the money has been going to party committees on both side of the aisle.

CHOMA: The party committees are usually controlled or heavily influenced by the party leaders. And so if you want to get Nancy Pelosi’s attention or if you want to get John Boehner’s attention, you donate to the party committee, because these allow them to strengthen their majority or win back the majority. And they have a larger contribution limit. So you can only give–this cycle, you can only give about $5,400 to one candidate. But you can give more than $32,000 to the party committee. She you can write a bigger check, you can get to the people at the top, get their attention. And, really, you need more than just one member of Congress to get something done. You want to have the party on your side, you want to have the leadership on your side. And so this is the way the big donors can get to the top.

DESVARIEUX: The top of the Republican leadership includes Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell, former House majority leader had Eric Cantor, and speaker of the house John Boehner, who you can see here in a photo with Simon Falic at an event for the American Friends of Lubavitch. Both McConnell and Boehner are strong supporters of Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, and Boehner invited Netanyahu to address Congress in a joint session without informing the White House or the State Department.

This week, Netanyahu said that he won’t just be speaking for Israel when he addresses Congress. Rather, he’ll be speaking for the entire Jewish people. Referring to the recent Charlie Hebdo’s shootings in Paris, he said, quote, I went to Paris not just as the prime minister of Israel, but as a representative of the entire Jewish people, just as I went to Paris, so I will go anyplace I’m invited to convey the Israeli position against those who want to kill us. But Netanyahu’s position and those of his supporters like the Falic family are not in step with the majority of American Jews. That’s according to polls conducted by pro-Israel lobbying firm J Street. They found that 84 percent of American Jews favored negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program.

ALAN ELSNER, VP COMMUNICATIONS, J STREET: If you pose it as the three alternatives which exist, one of them would be a negotiated solution, an agreement. The second would be Iran moving ahead with its program and getting a nuclear weapon. A third would be United States or some other actor taking military action to try and set back their nuclear program. I think you would find that American Jews and Americans in general overwhelmingly support the idea of negotiated solution to the agreement.

DESVARIEUX: But despite these polls of public opinion, Elsner says getting that message out can be difficult when you’re up against other lobbying firms with deep pockets.

ELSNER: It’s true that we’re fighting against very, very wealthy–sometimes individuals. I mean, Sheldon Adelson spent $100 million on Newt Gingrich presidential campaign back in 2012. And we don’t have $100 million. I wish we did.

And Sheldon Adelson spends millions and millions of dollars in trying to get Netanyahu reelected in Israel as well. He sponsors a newspaper called Israel HaYom, Israel Today, which is a free newspaper. It loses $3 million a month. And it’s basically derided in Israel as being just an election broadsheet for Netanyahu. Netanyahu’s smiling face and that of his wife are on the front page every day, glowing articles every day. And it actually has become the highest-circulation newspaper in Israel. But, of course, the commercial newspapers in Israel have to compete against him. They have to make a profit in order to survive. For Sheldon Adelson, $36 million a year is nothing. He makes that in a single day from his casinos. So, yes, there is an imbalance.

DESVARIEUX: This imbalance is also getting worse in the post-McCutcheon. And Russ Choma says that families like the Falics could be spending more than the public knows.

CHOMA: In the current system that we’re in, it is possible, you know, if there was an LLC that we didn’t know was affiliated with the family. I mean, these companies are ones that we think are related to them. But there could be other ones that we don’t know are related to them that could have given money to a super PAC. There’s also politically active nonprofits which don’t disclose their donors. They could have given money to a politically active nonprofit, we would have never seen the donor list, and then the politically active nonprofit is spending money. There’s hundreds of millions of dollars being spent by these groups that we just don’t know where it’s from.

Now, not many people give to these, we don’t think. So it’s entirely possible that they didn’t give money to it. But, yes, there are opportunities and avenues for donors that we can’t identify.

DESVARIEUX: Identifying where campaign cash is going is hard for reporters as well. Mondoweiss journalist Alex Kane went to the Falic family’s tax returns to try to follow the money.

KANE: The most detailed year that I found was 2006, fiscal year 2006. And that year, they gave hundreds of thousands of dollars to a lot of groups related to Israel, including $43,000 to an organization called the American Friends of Ataret Cohanim. They fund East Jerusalem settlements, $15,000 to the American Friends of Likud Party, which is a pro-Likud U.S. organization, and also over $100,000 to a U.S. charity that funds a yeshiva in the Hebron settlement of Kiryat Arba. And Kiryat Arba is populated by some of the most extreme Israeli settlers, who routinely abuse the neighboring Palestinians that live in Hebron.

Many of the settlers in Kiryat Arba, this settlement that the Falic family supports, are followers of Meir Kahane, who died in the early ’90s, was assassinated, but who was the most extreme Israeli politician, called for the expulsion of all Arabs. And these settlers take his words and put it into action. They harass Palestinians. For example, if you walk in the old city of Hebron, there are nets above this old city, because settlers that live above throw trash down on the Palestinians, they throw stones at the Palestinian residents of Hebron, and generally make their lives miserable because their presence means that the Israeli army has to protect them. And Hebron is the sort of symbol of what many have called Israeli apartheid, because there are actually streets which Palestinians cannot walk down and that are reserved for these extremist Israeli Jewish settlers.

TEXT ON SCREEN: THE REAL NEWS REACHED OUT TO THE FALIC FAMILY THROUGH THEIR DUTY FREE AMERICAS CORPORATE HEADQUARTERS FOR COMMENT AND DID NOT RECEIVE A RESPONSE BEFORE PUBLICATION.

DESVARIEUX: In part two of our series, we’ll take a closer look at how big donors like the Falic family are funding Democrats, especially those who often wage a battle with Republicans on who can be more pro-Israel than the other at pro-Israel lobbying firm AIPAC’s annual conference. Also we’ll look at how all this may be influencing their decision to attend or not attend Netanyahu’s speech, and more importantly for those deciding to boycott the speech, we’ll ask what’s really behind it. Are they really taking on the pro-Israel lobby? Or just reminding Israel of America’s role as the only superpower? We’ll have to see how this all plays out in the upcoming weeks ahead of Netanyahu’s address it.

For The Real News Network, Jessica Desvarieux, Washington.

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