Senator Bob Menendez (D-NJ) talks about the uniqueness of the US-Israel relationship, the Democratic Party and the Iran deal: "It is my hope that we can push back on Iran"
When Democratic Senator Bob Menendez announced that he would vote against the Iran deal, he concluded his speech with the following remarks: “I have looked into my own soul and my devotion to principle may once again lead me to an unpopular course, but if Iran is to acquire a nuclear bomb, it will not have my name on it.” Earlier in his speech, he had quoted from John F. Kennedy’s Profiles in Courage – a book dedicated solely to historical instances where politicians followed their conscience and voted or acted in defiance of the popular sentiment at the time – and said: “‘In whatever arena in life one may meet the challenges of courage, whatever may be the sacrifices he faces if he follows his conscience – the loss of his friends, his fortune, his contentment, even the esteem of his fellow men – each man must decide for himself the course he will follow.”
Senator Menendez would later say that he believes he has paid a price for his dissent and criticism of the White House on Iran, Cuba and other foreign policy issues. In March 2015, as the Iran deal was being negotiated, Menendez was indicted on charges of corruption, and there was much speculation that those charges were politically motivated. One of the consequences of his indictment was that he stepped down as ranking member on the Senate Foreign Relations committee, reducing his role in leading the Congressional debate on the Iran deal.
Senator Bob Menendez is the son of Cuban immigrants. He was elected to the House of Representatives from New Jersey’s 13th district where he served from 1992-2006. In 2006, he was elected to the US Senate, where he has served for the last eleven years. Throughout his time in Congress, Menendez has been a passionate advocate of Israel, always reminding people that the Jewish people’s right to the land of Israel stems from the Bible, going to back to Abraham and Sara. One of his memorable speeches in the Senate was in 2009, shortly after President Obama’s Cairo speech, where the President asserted that Jewish people’s right to the land of Israel stems from the Holocaust and years of suffering. On the Senate floor, Menendez went into a passionate dissertation of the Jewish people’s historical connection to the land of Israel and the roots of America’s bond with the State of Israel. He summed up the speech by saying:
“The United States is not simply allied with a government, it is an ally of Israel’s people. It is an ally of Israel’s democratic ideals. It is an ally of its history, of its aspirations for peace and prosperity, its can-do spirit, and amazing resilience in the face of threats from all sides. In that sense, we are not just Israel’s allies, we are admirers, we are partners, and we are friends. I plan to do everything I can to see that we support this friendship this year, next year, and every year thereafter.”
I caught up with Senator Menendez in between votes in the Senate to discuss foreign policy, Israel and the Democratic Party.
My origins have shaped my views
In your opposition to the Iran deal you mentioned ‘your devotion to principle’ as guiding your opposition – what are those principles that have led you as a politician?
I have had a devotion – particularly in my 25 years in the House and Senate Foreign Relations Committee – to human rights, democracy and what is in the national security interest of the US. Those principles dictate my views, my policies, my advocacies and my votes, and that has been my compass particularly as it relates to foreign policy.
How has the fact that you are the son of Cuban immigrants affected your foreign policy outlook?
It has had a dramatic impact. My parents were political refugees from the Batista regime. They didn’t like what they saw in Batista as a dictatorship from the right, they didn’t like what they saw with Fidel Castro. My mother was the driver of the decision to uproot her family and come to the US – they had no one waiting here for them; they didn’t know the language; they had no guarantees of employment; and she decided to take that risk – which she thought was worthier than living under any form of oppression. That led me to be born here and I know that history, I understand it, and that history is unfortunately replicated in many parts of the world in different ways. That is part of the reason that I understand that democracy, human rights, respect for the rule of law are all essential elements of an international order that in the end of the day serve our global collective good and so those experiences have obviously helped forge my views.
Israel is our single most important alliance in the Middle East
You have mentioned in speeches that it is in the US strategic interest to support Israel. How do you see Israel’s role in US strategy in the Middle East? Furthermore, how do you answer those who say that support for Israel harms US interests in the broader Middle East?
My policies are dictated by the answers to two questions: what is in the national interest and security of the US. For 25 years, sitting on the House and Senate Foreign Relations Committee, I have answered that as it relates to the Middle East it is in our national interest and security to have a strong and unwavering alliance with the State of Israel – the one true democracy in a sea of autocracy; a major security ally of the US; a major trading partner of the US; and the one country most likely to be voting with us in common cause in international forums. That to me is the anchor of our relationship in the Middle East because all of those virtues that Israel possesses.
At the same time, as we work with our Gulf allies, we believe that there are strategic interests that we share with those countries, and that Israel shares as well. Whether it is the challenge and the existential threat of a nuclear armed Iran, whether it is the alliances that Israel has made with Jordan and Egypt among others, so we do not believe that one is exclusive of the other, but we do believe that it is – bar none – the single most important alliance that we have in the Middle East.
President Trump has declared that he will move the embassy to Jerusalem – do you think that is a good decision?
I have already supported legislation in the past establishing the embassy in Jerusalem, subject to a presidential waiver – the president will have to decide whether or not to invoke the waiver. I would just simply say, if our collective goal is the fight against ISIS, which I understand it is, supposedly that is President Trump’s number one national security imperative, and one that I know that Israel shares. If we want a unified role including the Muslim world, to join us in that regard, then the question of the embassy to Jerusalem is a question of timing – a question of ‘when’ and not ‘if’. I think we need to look at all the other factors including what it means for Israel to have the embassy opened up in Jerusalem at this time as it face challenges within the region.
You have put the onus on the Palestinians for the continuation of the conflict in some of your speeches. As we near the 50th year anniversary of the Six Day war, do you think that it’s time that the US look for different paradigms in addressing the conflict as opposed to ‘land for peace’?
I personally am still committed to a two state solution, but it is one that must be achieved between the parties and not internationally imposed. It must be one that guarantees Israel the right to be a Jewish state with peace and security; and hopefully living alongside a Palestinian state with peace, security and prosperity. But that can only be derived between the parties and they will have to come to a conclusion as to what that solution will be. How that is derived is the most important measurement. We have seen in different conflicts in the world that when we seek to impose – whether through a UN process or a brokered process of others – a solution that doesn’t come from the parties doesn’t stand the test of time.
The Iran Deal is a foreign policy based on hope
Regarding PM Netanyahu’s speech to Congress on the Iran deal, you mentioned that regardless of the process of the invitation you would be there since he is the voice of the people of Israel, and that you take issue with those who think that the speech harmed US-Israel relations – do you think the speech caused antagonism towards Israel among the Democratic party?
I think the way that Speaker Boehner invited the Prime Minister, without any consultation with the Administration at the time, was totally out of order and out of tradition. Having said that, my view is that the Prime Minister is the elected voice of Israel and hearing him on something that Israel considers an existential threat was appropriate. Because of the way it was done it created friction with Democrats who felt that the President was being disrespected. I would simply say that the Prime Minister of Great Britain was visiting the US and he was allowed by the White House to opine here in the US and to call lawmakers in the US about his views about what the Iran deal should be. Other foreign entities were here in the US and felt free, while in the US, to call upon Members of Congress to act and vote a certain way. While that wasn’t a joint address before Congress, they certainly were foreign leaders in the US telling the US Congress what they think they should do, so if they have the right to do it, I don’t know why the Prime Minister of Israel doesn’t have the right to do it.
There were four Democratic Senators against the Iran deal; however you were the only one who was unequivocally against the deal – even accusing President Obama of misleading people. What is it about the deal that you saw that none of your other colleagues saw or did they cave into pressure?
I can’t speak for my other colleagues, but I will say that if you look at so many of my colleagues who voted for in support of the agreement, their remarks explaining their vote are tortured. You hear them recite all the shortcomings of the deal and then cast a vote based on ‘hope’. The problem with hope is that it is not a national security policy. I would hope that Iran would have changed its course but I can’t trust the history of Iran and base my vote on hope, and therefore the agreement had a series of shortfalls.
The agreement did not ultimately do away with Iran’s nuclear program, it did not seek dismantlement – it mothballed Iran’s nuclear program – and in fifteen years would give the Iranians a pathway towards not only nuclear power, but also the path to nuclear weaponry, even if they follow every element of the agreement all the way. It undid the obligations of Iran to observe UN Security Council resolutions that deny them the ability to do ballistic missile testing. It made them flush with money at a time when we see them using that money, for example with Hezbollah and Syria, in the continued promotion of state sponsored terrorism. Those are just some of the many shortcomings of the agreement.
I will admit that it takes a profile in courage to stand up to a president of your own party, but if you believe in the oath that you take as a Member of Congress, and that you are a separate co-equal branch of government, then even when the president of your party has one view, that does not dictate that that should be your view. Therefore, I cast my vote the way I did and I believe that we are currently seeing the challenges of the agreement, from some short term gains we have long term consequences. It is my hope that we can push back on Iran, as I am intending to do, on all of its other, non-nuclear transgressions, including: ballistic missile development and testing, destabilization of the region, terrorism and human rights violations, just to mention a few, and to sanction those activities in a way that sends a very clear message to Iran that because you struck a deal on the nuclear issue, as flawed as it may be, doesn’t mean you can do all these other things without consequences.
Are you worried about a situation where Iran continues to defy the US and, while sanctions may work partially, at the end of the day military action might be necessary against its nuclear installations?
I think we avoid that possibility if we have robust enforcement of the agreement, as flawed as it is. The fact that there are elements of the agreement that aren’t fully lived up to is not acceptable, because that is the slippery slope in which the Iranians ultimately get the sense that it is okay to continue to test the nature of the agreement and to do other things in violation of international law. I think we have been down a slippery slope where issues like the Parchin military plant and others have been ignored for the sake of the agreement – I think that is risky. Going back to my previous answer, if you push back on Iran on all other elements: its promotion of terrorism, its destabilization of the region, its ballistic missile technology development and testing – you then send a very clear message that they cannot pursue the nuclear path because you are going to continue to curtail their activities. Thus, I think that robust engagement in all of those ways reduces the risk of Iran becoming a nuclear arms state, but in the absence of that robust engagement the risk is much greater.
You have said “Whether it be this [Iran], or Cuba, my party doesn’t care for my [foreign policy] views.” Has something happened that you have become a lone voice on national security in the Democratic Party?
I don’t envision myself as a lone voice in the Democratic Party on national security outside of those two parts of the world [Iran and Cuba]. I think we have a collective view of our fight against ISIS in the world; a very strong view to stand up to Russia for its violations on international norms and its annexation of Crimea, its invasion of Ukraine; a very clear view of China and its developments in the South China sea. I don’t view myself as a loner or a lone voice on national security, but I am more forward leaning on national security and foreign policy questions than some of my colleagues are.
It seems that in recent years the Democratic Party has become more critical of Israel. Has this been due to President Obama or is this a general shift in the ideology of the party?
I must say that I know the perception is there, but I don’t see it as a reality. The reality is that there is a strong unwavering support by the overwhelming part of the Democratic Party for our alliance and relationship with the State of Israel. It was shown in the $38 billion memorandum of understanding; it was shown in the overwhelming rejection of the UN Security Council Resolution, and in so many other ways. At the end of the day I would simply say there is strong support. Now President Obama may have questioned that support on some issues – he was the President of the US – but I don’t think it can be said that he spoke for Democrats in Congress, who are overwhelmingly supportive of Israel.
Gideon Israel is co-head of the Jerusalem Washington Center and can be contacted at [email protected]