News that U.S. President Barack Obama’s justice department is preparing to seek a criminal indictment for corruption against Senator Robert Menendez strikes me as no small matter for Israel, not to mention America. The senator is co-author of the bill known as Menendez-Kirk, also known as the Nuclear Weapon Free Iran Act. It is the measure at the heart of the feud between Obama and the Congress. Already there are calls for Menendez to resign. If he does, it would be a big setback for the pro-Israel camp in Congress.
I don’t know Menendez personally and carry no brief on either side of the corruption case. It involves the senator’s dealings with a wealthy ophthalmologist in Florida, Salomon Melgen. The senator and Dr. Melgen have been cronies for many years. The senator admits to having failed to report rides he accepted on the doctor’s airplane; he has reimbursed some $58,000 for such travel and has denied any wrongdoing. In search of evidence the Justice Department is trying to pierce constitutional protections senators enjoy for what they say during their work.
It’s too soon to say what charges a grand jury will be asked to hand up (if it even agrees to hand up charges at all). But it’s not too soon to say that if the senator is indicted, his future in the senate is in doubt. His ouster would remove from the Senate a species that seems to be nearing extinction — the high-powered Democrat willing to take a high-profile stand in support of the Jewish state. In the fight over Iran, Menendez has had his head way above the parapet.
There just haven’t been all that many Democrats willing to take the lead in challenging the administration on Iran. What about — just to pick a famous name — Senator Charles Schumer? He’s a publicity hound; it’s said that the most dangerous place in politics is between Schumer and the network news cameras. Yet he’s been remarkably muted in the fight over the appeasement of the Iranian mullahs, even though he’s a co-sponsor of Menendez-Kirk and did attend Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech to the joint meeting of Congress.
New York’s junior senator, Kirsten Gillibrand, and New Jersey’s, Cory Booker, have also been unwilling, it seems, to tangle with the president. In contrast, Menendez has been particularly courageous. Several weeks ago, when Obama suggested to his fellow Democrats that they were kowtowing to political donors on the Iran issue, it was Menendez who stood up and told the president to his face that he took offense. The other day in a hearing, he likened the president’s position to “talking points that come straight out of Tehran.”
This is coming from the highest ranking Senate Foreign Relations Committee member from the president’s own party. It doesn’t prove — and I wouldn’t allege — that the pursuit of Menendez by the Justice Department is a political prosecution. But given the ideological way in which the Justice Department has been run and given the president’s own vows to use his pen and phone where Congress blocks him, it is not hard to imagine that Washington will debate this question.
Over the weekend at Des Moines, Iowa, a leading Republican, Senator Ted Cruz, bluntly suggested that political retribution is behind the charges, according to a report in a newspaper that covers Congress. “The timing,” the Hill quoted Cruz as saying of news of the pending charges, “seems awfully coincidental,” coming as it did “in the very week that Bob Menendez showed incredible courage to speak out and call out President Obama for the damage that his policy is doing to our national security.”
The bigger story is the dwindling of the pro-Israel Democrats, of which Menendez is a lion. It is an incredible thing that there are only eight Democrats among the sponsors of Menendez-Kirk. Govtrack.us lists 41 Republicans. A greater chance of passage is given to a measure called the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act, which would require that any pact with the mullahs be laid before the Congress. This has a smaller number of co-sponsors (it’s more recent) but the sponsors are more broadly bipartisan.
Not that Menendez is a patsy for the GOP; he threatened to vote against his own bill if the Republicans tried to take the measure directly to the floor without going through the Foreign Relations Committee where he’s the ranking member. It’s a reminder that he’s not to be taken for granted by the Republicans who now control the upper chamber, even if he is legendarily strong on the question of Israel. All the more newsworthy that if Senator Menendez goes down, he is going to be one Democrat who will be hard to replace.
Seth Lipsky is editor of The New York Sun. He was foreign editor and a member of the editorial board of The Wall Street Journal, founding editor of the Forward and editor from 1990 to 2000.
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