|From left, Josh Gottheimer, Rabbi Elyse Frishman, and congregation President Kathy Hecht listen as Senator Robert Menendez speaks. Len Diamond|
It’s not every day that a United States senator stops by a synagogue to discuss the Middle East.
That’s what happened Sunday morning, when Senator Robert Menendez visited Barnert Temple in Franklin Lakes.
He anchored the talk in this Passover holiday.
“Friday night begins the eight-day festival of Passover commemorating the emancipation of the people of Israel, a story that is not over for Israelis still longing to live in their homeland of thousands of years,” he began.
“This year, as Passover approaches, let us pray that the time of peace and security will finally come for Israel and for the Jewish people.
“First, I think we should congratulate Prime Minister Netanyahu on his party’s victory in Israel’s elections on March 17th; and we must address any tension between the United States and Israel.
“What we saw during the Israeli political campaign was a vigorous, robust, and at times contentious debate over how Israelis see the future of Israel and its policies.
“I can say that I certainly know – from the time I was a mayor in New Jersey, to my years in the U.S. House of Representatives, and now in the Senate – vigorous debate and disagreement is a necessary element of a vibrant democracy and Israel certainly is a vibrant democracy, with a dynamic economy, a proud, strong military, a home to entrepreneurs, activists, intellectuals, artists, and scientists…and a model to the region and the world.
“The fact is – democracy can be messy, but the alternative – as we see in the Middle East – can be even messier, and sometimes it can be brutally ugly, but no one questions the fact that the government that Prime Minister Netanyahu forms will meet the criteria of any democratically-elected government with transparent democratic institutions under the rule of law,” he said.
Senator Menendez is expected to begin fighting for his own political survival this week, when he is finally indicted on federal corruption charges. The close connection between Senator Menendez and the pro-Israeli community can be seen in the prominent role that leaders of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee play among the donors to his defense committee.
Sen. Menendez congratulated Benjamin Netanyahu “on a hard-fought victory” and “wished wish him well in dealing with the challenges he will face – challenges all of us share in bringing peace and stability to the Middle East.
“Let me address some of the criticism and concerns about the prime minister’s remarks about a two-state solution that have caused such a furor.
“As you know, I have always been committed to a two-state solution. And anyone who has ever been at the negotiating table for any deal knows that getting to ‘yes’ requires two partners, each willing and capable. Each willing to take the deal back to their constituents and sell it. And each willing to put in the years of implementation that will make it work.
“I believe the road to peace is a negotiated two-state solution that ensures both the security of Israel and a sustainable future for the Palestinian people, and I will continue to work in the Senate, with the administration, and with our partners in the region to make sure that conditions are conducive to a viable two-state solution. That means conditions on the Israeli side, but also on the Palestinian side…and I have my doubts about the commitment and capacity of the current lineup of Palestinian leadership.
“Notwithstanding what Prime Minister Netanyahu said before the election, the story is not over until he forms a governing coalition that can, in fact, govern.
“And I believe there must be room for a negotiated settlement in any sustainable Israeli coalition government.
“To say otherwise, is to admit defeat of a peace process that has lasted for generations, and accept an endless cycle of violence in the world’s most dangerous tinderbox.
“My commitment to working toward a peaceful settlement with any Israeli government, regardless of who is in the prime minister’s office, is unwavering.
“Bottom line: my support of Israel transcends changes in leadership in Washington or Tel Aviv, the White House or Congress.
“The fact is – the U.S.-Israeli relationship and the security of the Israeli people is much more important than any one person. It is sacrosanct, untouchable. It transcends faith, party affiliation, or political philosophy.
“Now, on the subject of Iran, you know where I stand. We are at the witching hour, and Senator Bob Corker” – chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee – “and I announced last week that the Foreign Relations Committee will vote on our bipartisan Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act on April 14th – when we return from recess.
“He and I have been working together behind the scenes to ensure that we have the strongest bipartisan vote possible.
“The bill is a good bill. It would give Congress 60 days to review any deal before it goes into effect.
“During that period, Congress would have the opportunity to hold hearings and briefings…. we could approve, disapprove, or take no action on the agreement.
“After all the work Congress has put into bringing Iran to the negotiating table, it seems to me that Congress should at least have an opportunity to look at the agreement before it takes effect with an oversight process that senators on both sides of the aisle agree to.
“Senator Corker (R-TN) and I have worked both sides of the aisle to reach a consensus, and, at the moment, the bill is cosponsored by Senators John McCain (R-AZ), Joe Donnelly (D-IN), Marco Rubio (R-FL), Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND), Kelly Ayotte (R-NH), Bill Nelson (D-FL), Jim Risch (R-ID), Angus King (IN-MN), Rand Paul (R-KY), Susan Collins (R-ME), Michael Bennet (D-CO), Mike Rounds (R-SD), Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), and Lamar Alexander (R-TN).
“And that’s as bipartisan as it gets in Washington or in Franklin Lakes.
“The fact is, in my view, the only way we can send a message to Tehran is if Congress puts politics aside and acts together in the national security interest of the United States – and the Corker”“Menendez bill is in our national security interest.
“Our goal is to make certain Iran does not have a nuclear weapon capability and is not able to ignite an arms race in the Middle East, the tinderbox of the world.
“But let me say, I cannot support a deal if it leaves Iran as a threshold nuclear state, or if Iran decides to kick out inspectors.
“In my view, it’s not a good deal if Iran proceeds on a covert path and we have no more than one year to respond.
“One year is not enough time for us to do anything other than exercise a military option.
“When it comes to Iran, I say to the ayatollah and President Rouhani that any deal – to be a good deal – has to be built on more than mothballing Iran’s program – more than on an inspection-and-verification regime focused on monitoring a one-year break-out capability.
“You can be certain, the mullahs are not going to call us in Washington when they decide to breach the agreement.
“They are going to sneak out – covertly, gradually, over time – when they think we’re not looking, just as they have in the past – and they are going to parse the words of this agreement and argue – as they have already – about whether a nuclear advancement technically violates the agreement.
“At the end of the day, we must do all we can now to get an agreement that dismantles Iran’s illicit program and ensures that it will not have to be a military response.
“A good deal, not just any deal, is what we need.
“That said, today let us reflect on one overriding fact as Passover approaches and we celebrate the emancipation of the Israeli people – and that is that Israel has always had the right to exist – the right to live in peace and security in the homeland of the Jewish people.
“Even now, you can see as record numbers of European Jews make the decision to make aliyah to Israel – a country that stands for justice and protection in a world that even now is filled with anti-Semitism, brutality, ignorance, and suffering – a new wave of anti-Semitism that we’ve seen rearing its ugly head everywhere in example after example.
“In May, a gunman killed four people when he opened fire at the Jewish Museum of Belgium in Brussels, Belgium.
“In July, Molotov cocktails were thrown at the synagogue in Germany which had been burned to the ground by the Nazis during the 1938 Kristallnacht – and was rebuilt as recently as 2002.”
“And on January 9, four members of France’s Jewish community were murdered in an attack on a kosher supermarket following the terrorist attack on the Paris offices of newspaper Charlie Hebdo. And the list goes on. The fact is that anti-Semitism is alive-and-well in too many places. Violence is thriving in too many parts of the world. And hatred and intolerance continue against the Jewish people everywhere. Our challenge – in Washington, in Tel Aviv, or in Franklin Lakes – is to stand against intolerance – stand against anti-Semitism in any form – everywhere at this time of year – especially at this time of year – when Jews celebrate Passover and Christians celebrate Easter – let us hope and pray for peace.
“Let us recommit to the values we share and our common cause – that the U.S.-Israel relationship is sacrosanct and we will always have Israel’s back. And that means fighting back against efforts by any nation or any anti-Semitic group or groups – any haters or Holocaust deniers who try to delegitimize Israel.
“As I’ve said many times and on many occasions, the Holocaust was the most sinister possible reminder that the Jewish people in exile lived in constant jeopardy.
“But while the Shoah is central to Israel’s identity, it was never the reason behind its founding, and it is not the main justification for Israel’s existence today.
“The true justification is written in thousands of years of undeniable history with deep roots going back to the time of Abraham and Sarah.
“The argument for Israel’s existence has been nurtured by the suffering of the Jewish people… by the courage of generations of men and women who have made the desert green, by Nobel Prizes earned, by groundbreaking innovations and enviable institutions – by lives saved, democracy defended, peace made, and battles won.
“There can be no denying the Jewish people their legitimate right to live in peace and security – on a homeland to which they have had a connection for thousands of years.
“You can be sure that I will not yield when it comes to stopping Iran’s nuclear weapons ambitions – and on preserving the unshakeable bond between Israel and the United States. Shalom.”