Israel hawk Robert Menendez indicted for corruption, again

Mitchell Plitnick

Mondoweiss  /  September 28, 2023

AIPAC’s favorite Senate Democrat, New Jersey Senator Robert Menendez, may lose his seat following a second major corruption scandal. This could be an opportunity for Palestinian rights advocates.

For the second time in his career, New Jersey Democratic Senator Robert Menendez has been rocked by a corruption scandal. This one, at least initially, looks like it will sink AIPAC’s favorite Senate Democrat.

Until this latest scandal erupted, Menendez’s corrupt past had been securely flushed down the memory hole. Today, he faces a wall of evidence that he took massive bribes of cash, gold, and even a $60 thousand Mercedes convertible in exchange for favors to Egypt that included passing along non-public information on military matters to the al-Sisi government, which had frequently come under fire in Washington for its abysmal human rights record. Menendez also allegedly clandestinely influenced the release of aid money to Egypt and used his position to help some “friends” of his against federal prosecutions. 

While the evidence is strong, Menendez might be able to win in court, as he did in 2015, because of the obstacles the conservative Supreme Court has put in place to protect legislators accused of corruption. But already, it is evident that the political atmosphere is different this time. Several of Menendez’s Democratic colleagues have called on him to resign from the Senate. While Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer did not, he offered only lukewarm support for Menendez. He clearly sides with Menendez but could only go so far, given the strength of the evidence that has already been made public.  

An AIPAC favorite 

In 2015, when Menendez faced accusations of corruption, he had a lot friends rally around him. Those friends included Sheldon and Miriam Adelson, Haim Saban, Mortimer Zuckerman and Seth Klarman, all major pro-Israel donors, but, crucially, representative of donors to both Democrats and Republicans.

Menendez also found support from Alan Dershowitz, and other leading pro-Israel figures, as that community rallied around a man who had done enormous service for their cause since his election to the Senate in 2006. 

The result of all of that was that the man who was accused of bribing Menendez, Saloman Melgen—a Florida ophthalmologist and major pro-Israel activist and donor who, separately, was also convicted of defrauding Medicare of some $50 million—went to jail, yet Menendez did not. The jury was unable to agree on Menendez’s crimes, and he got a mistrial. Melgen, who would have his sentence commuted by Donald Trump in 2021, was convicted, apparently, of bribing no one. 

When Democrats took the Senate back, Menendez once again became chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee, having been the Ranking Member since 2018, after his corruption trial was concluded. By that time, his corruption scandal had been thoroughly buried, having faded from the headlines even by the time the trial ended. 

The American Jewish Congress notes some of his many pro-Israel accomplishments: “Senator Menendez opposed the Iran nuclear deal. He opposes the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement and cosponsored the Israel Anti-Boycott Act and the Combating BDS Act of 2017…He has condemned anti-Israel feelings and resolutions at the United Nations, including the UN Security Council Resolution 2334, which claims that Israel’s settlements have no legal validity. He supported the Taylor Force Act …

“Senator Menendez supported the move of the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem and cosponsored the United States-Israel Security Assistance Authorization Act of 2018, a legislation that supported full funding of security assistance to Israel as outlined in the 2016 U.S.-Israel Memorandum of Understanding. In 2019, he voted for the Strengthening America’s Middle East Security Act which, among other things, strengthened Israel’s security and allowed a state or local government to adopt measures to divest its assets from entities that boycott Israel.”

At AIPAC’s 2018 conference, Menendez thanked the lobbying group for its support during his corruption trial, and told the audience, “Most of you know that I have resumed my role as the ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. I do not waver in my beliefs, even when others do not stand up for Israel.”

His vote against the Iran nuclear deal in 2015 was a major concern for the Obama administration as they had to work to overcome Senate opposition to the deal and were being undermined by members of their own party. Menendez was a leading Democratic figure in that opposition. 

During that first corruption scandal, Greg Rosenbaum, who was then the chairman of the National Jewish Democratic Council, and a close associate of AIPAC, said, “I think we’re pretty much lock step with his positions on issues that matter to American Jewish voters,” by which, of course, he meant Israel, and only Israel.

What Menendez’s indictment might mean

The new indictment comes at a very different political moment than the first one. With Donald Trump’s trials making headlines on a daily basis, Democrats are paying more attention to issues of criminality and ethics in Washington. It’s one of the main pillars they’re hanging their hats on in 2024, as their campaign themes are almost exclusively reliant on how corrupt, dangerous, and amoral the Republican party is. They certainly have a strong case, one the Republicans strengthen every day, and if a more positive campaign thrust might be more effective, the negative strategy allows Democrats to focus less on their own results, track record, and service to elites, all of which speak poorly of them but much worse of the Republicans.

As a result, it is more important than ever that when a major corruption scandal like this one breaks, Democrats send the message, however disingenuous, that they will not tolerate such behavior within their own ranks. Doubtless, some of the condemnations of Menendez that have appeared in the first few days since the indictment was announced are sincere, but whatever the level of that sincerity, it’s clear that Menendez cannot count on the same level of support from his colleagues that he got eight years ago. 

But it’s not clear yet how the major Jewish institutions and pro-Israel lobby groups will respond to Menendez’s plight. Schumer’s statement that “Bob Menendez has been a dedicated public servant and is always fighting hard for the people of New Jersey. He has a right to due process and a fair trial,” might be the blueprint pro-Israel groups follow. It’s difficult to know for sure because of the timing, coinciding with the holiday of Yom Kippur, which probably has delayed the strategizing and public response from Jewish groups. 

Menendez is likely to be replaced for the moment by Maryland’s Ben Cardin as the Chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Cardin was SFRC Chair after Menendez was indicted the first time, and served as Chair and Ranking Member until Menendez took the leadership back in 2018. Cardin, like Menendez, is a major hawk on Israel and friend of AIPAC. But Cardin is also stepping down at the end of his term next year, so whatever the outcome is for Menendez, Cardin is not the long-term replacement.

This means AIPAC could potentially be losing its two most powerful SFRC Democrats. Of course, there is still a majority on the committee, including all Republicans, that will back almost anything Israel wants, with Rand Paul being an occasional GOP exception. And among the Democrats, Chris Coons of Delaware is nearly as hawkish as Cardin and Menendez on issues related to Israel. But the rest of the Democrats range from moderate voices like Virgina’s Tim Kaine or New Hampshire’s Jeanne Shaheen to occasional critics like Chris Murphy of Connecticut, Jeff Merkley of Oregon, and Chris Van Hollen of Maryland. Van Hollen, of course is the senator who has struggled to get to the truth of the murder of Shireen Abu Akleh. 

This represents an opportunity for lobbying on Palestine, depending on who eventually replaces Cardin and possibly Menendez on the committee. And, of course, it also depends on Democrats maintaining control of the Senate next year. 

One race to watch will be for Cardin’s successor in Maryland. Congressman David Trone is a leading contender. He is the co-founder and co-owner of Total Wine & More, which calls itself the largest independent wine retailer in the United States. They buy wines from Israel and make no secret of buying much of that wine from the Jewish settlements, and Trone himself is a major donor to AIPAC. Trone, who is largely financing his campaign himself, will surely try to get on the Foreign Relations Committee if he wins. His opponents—Angela Alsobrooks and progressive Will Jawando are the main ones—are almost certain to be better on Palestine than Trone, though this is also unlikely to be an issue in the Democratic primary in Maryland (which, in Maryland, will effectively be the election for the Senate seat), so we won’t know much for sure. 

Even if Menedez manages to beat the rap again, the stench of this accusation is very likely to hang over his re-election campaign next year. In 2018, the last time he ran, there were years between his indictment and the election, and the story had fallen from the headlines by the time his trial ended. Now, there will be mere months. Doubtless, New Jersey’s Democratic governor, Phil Murphy—who has already called on Menendez to resign—relishes the idea of putting his own stamp on the Senate race in 2024 by appointing an interim replacement for Menendez, but this is unlikely to change much as Murphy is known as being staunchly pro-Israel as well

But if the SFRC loses both Cardin and Menendez, it would create an opening for Palestine advocates to press for more influence with the committee. People like Van Hollen, Merkley, and Murphy will all be receptive to a point, especially with Israel’s current far-right government, and they’ll all be more senior members of the committee with the two hawks at the top gone if they retain their seats on the committee. 

This may seem like small gains, and, given the massive plight of the Palestinian people and the stranglehold Israel has on the issue in Washington, it certainly is. But this is the only sort of progress that can be made in a dysfunctional Senate where pro-Israel advocates have not only spent millions but also worked for decades to build up their influence. Menedez’s corruption scandal is an opportunity, and advocates for Palestinian rights must take advantage of every one, large or small. 

Mitchell Plitnick is the president of ReThinking Foreign Policy; he is the co-author, with Marc Lamont Hill, of Except for Palestine: The Limits of Progressive Politics