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Menendez’s legal woes could reshape direction of Democratic foreign policy

Menendez’s long-term successor as ranking Democrat atop the Senate Foreign Relations Committee may not be as supportive of Israel

More than half of Senate Democrats have called on Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ) to resign since his indictment on Friday on federal corruption charges over alleged transactions with Egyptian businessmen and government officials. 

The New Jersey Democrat’s legal troubles could spur a major shake-up in the direction of his party’s foreign policy. Menendez, who is temporarily stepping down as chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has been a Democratic hawk and a pro-Israel stalwart. There will likely be competition for the top Democratic spot on the committee between lawmakers with different views on international affairs.

Menendez has maintained his innocence, and has vowed to fight the charges while remaining in the Senate. But Menendez faced a huge political blow on Tuesday when one of his closest allies, Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ), called on him to resign amid growing Democratic condemnation. Booker served as a character witness at Menendez’s first corruption trial, which ended in a mistrial. 

Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ) holds a press conference as he rejects accusations of corruption and calls from fellow Democrats to step down from Congress after he was indicted for a second time last week in New Jersey on September 25, 2023.

“Senator Menendez fiercely asserts his innocence and it is therefore understandable that he believes stepping down is patently unfair. But I believe this is a mistake,” Booker said in a statement. “Stepping down is not an admission of guilt but an acknowledgment that holding public office often demands tremendous sacrifices at great personal cost… I believe stepping down is best for those Senator Menendez has spent his life serving.”

As of Tuesday evening, 26 Senate Democrats had called for Menendez to step down, representing a diverse ideological cross-section of the caucus. Nearly all of those facing competitive reelections called on Menendez to resign. The list also includes a member of Democratic leadership, Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-MI), and the chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, Sen. Gary Peters (D-MI).

Menendez has thus far remained defiant, maintaining his innocence, blaming the charges on misrepresentations and claiming that he is the target of a long-running smear campaign, in part because of his Latino heritage.

On Friday, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) announced that Menendez would temporarily step aside as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, a position from which he has been a powerful ally of the pro-Israel community and a strong skeptic of the Biden administration’s efforts at diplomacy with Iran.

In the short term, Sen. Ben Cardin (D-MD) will assume the chairmanship — as he did during Menendez’s first indictment — a Senate source told Jewish Insider on Tuesday evening. Cardin is another longtime ally of the pro-Israel community who, like Menendez, broke with his party to vote against the Iran nuclear deal.

Cardin was the first senator, outside of Schumer, to issue a statement on Menendez’s indictment on Thursday, in which he did not call for Menendez to resign.

“I encourage everyone to allow the legal process to move forward without prejudice,” Cardin said. “Senator Menendez has a right to respond aggressively in court to the current charges, and I am confident that he will do so.”

Menendez’s leave from his role atop the Foreign Relations Committee could have a far-reaching impact on U.S. foreign policy; the senator, who at times butted heads with the Biden administration, was seen as holding significant influence over its foreign policy.

The leadership shake-up could also interrupt the timeline for Jack Lew’s confirmation process as U.S. ambassador to Israel. It also creates new questions about major issues that could come before the committee, such as votes around a trilateral deal involving the U.S., Saudi Arabia and Israel or renewed efforts to finalize a nuclear deal with Iran.

The charges against Menendez are likely to prompt calls for additional scrutiny of U.S. aid to Egypt, which has been a source of tension between some Democrats and the administration. Congress has, for multiple years, placed conditions on a portion of U.S. military aid to Egypt, but the administration has waived the conditions on the bulk of that aid.

“I would hope that our committee will consider using any ability it has to put a pause on those dollars pending a new inquiry into what Egypt was doing,” Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT), a Foreign Relations Committee member who has called for stricter conditioning of aid to Egypt, told reporters. “As a committee, we now have a responsibility to understand what Egypt was doing and what Egypt thought it was getting. There are serious implications for U.S. policy towards Egypt if, as the indictment suggests, they were trying to use illicit means to curry favor on the committee.”

Menendez’s suspension as the Foreign Relations Committee chair has been met with celebration from the Turkish government; the senator had exercised his power as committee chair to block sales of advanced fighter jets to Ankara.

“One of our most important problems regarding the F-16s were the activities of U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez against our country,” Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said. “Menendez’s exit gives us an advantage.”

In the longer term, the Foreign Relations Committee’s leadership could be up for grabs, given that Cardin will retire at the end of 2024. He is followed in seniority on the committee by Sens. Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH), Chris Coons (D-DE) and Murphy.

Neither Shaheen nor Coons have commented on Menendez’s indictment, while Murphy has called for Menendez to step down.

Shaheen’s potential leadership of the committee could cause consternation for some pro-Israel advocates, given her occasional criticism of Israeli policy.

Earlier this month, Shaheen signed a letter opposing Israel’s prompt entry into the Visa Waiver Program. She previously joined letters calling for more aggressive U.S. involvement in investigating the killing of Palestinian-American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh, warning Israel against annexing portions of the West Bank and urging the administration to block evictions of Palestinians in the West Bank.

Shaheen was not supportive of the Taylor Force Act, and opposed moving the U.S. Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, calling the move “harmful to both U.S. and Israeli interests” and a detriment to Israeli-Palestinian peace. She has, however, been supportive of U.S. aid to Israel.

The New Hampshire senator has been active on issues related to Lebanon, including leading legislation aiming to cut off international financing to Hezbollah and legislation urging the European Union to ramp up pressure on the Iran-backed organization, including fully designating it as a terrorist group.

Coons, a close ally of President Joe Biden, currently serves as the chairman of the Senate Appropriations subcommittee responsible for the State Department and foreign aid. He’s seen as an unofficial representative of Biden on foreign policy, as well as a close AIPAC ally.

Coons has consistently facilitated U.S. aid to Israel from his role on the Appropriations committee; led senators on a 2016 letter supporting a new memorandum of understanding with Israel; led bills codifying that MOU into law in 2020 and extending U.S.-Israel development cooperation; and was a lead sponsor of the Partnership Fund for Peace Act. Coons also supported the Taylor Force Act.

In a glowing statement following Israeli President Isaac Herzog’s recent address to Congress, Coons said, “As today’s dozens of standing ovations showed, support for the U.S.-Israel alliance continues to be bipartisan and based on a shared commitment to democratic values… Together, I know we’ll ensure that Israel has what it needs to defend itself and carry out mutually beneficial defense, humanitarian, and development projects.”

Taking a similar stance to Biden, Coons has described the protests against the Israeli government’s judicial overhaul efforts as “a real moment of crisis for Israeli democracy” and called for the initiative to be “reconsidered, modified.”

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Robert Menendez (D-NJ) (R) and U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) hold a news conference after the senate voted 99-0 in favor of their resolution in support of Israel May 22, 2013, in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Coons was also critical of the Trump administration’s move to formally recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, saying in a statement that “Jerusalem for 70 years has been the capital of the state of Israel,” but that “President Trump’s decision to formally recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital today appears to be driven more by his desire to fulfill a campaign pledge.”

Murphy, who, given his relative lack of seniority, would likely be a longer shot for the post, is among the most prominent critics of Israeli policy in the Senate. He has floated leveraging aid to Israel in the interest of preserving a two-state solution and pushed to tie supplemental Iron Dome aid to additional aid for the Palestinians. He has also led efforts to cut U.S. military assistance to Saudi Arabia.

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