|Senator Menendez visits an Iron Dome installation in Israel in 2013. On his right is former IDF Deputy Chief of Staff Yair Naveh.|
The first two trips Senator Robert Menendez took to Israel – right around the time he was elected to the Congress- made a big impression on him. A helicopter tour of the country “gave me a physical perspective of the challenge Israel faces.
“Its back is to the sea and it is surrounded by neighbors who largely wish it ill,” he said.
He became convinced that “Israel is an incredibly important ally – and therefore you need to be able to help them to be secure.”
This led him to take a lead role in cosponsoring the United States-Israel Enhanced Security Cooperation Act of 2012, “which basically deepened our scientific and other relationships with Israel, and that led to the Iron Dome” anti-missile defense, “which was a joint venture of the United States and Israel in terms of its research and development and ultimately its building,” he said.
This summer, Iron Dome proved its effectiveness in repelling Hamas missiles. “It was critical to not having lost thousands of Israeli lives,” he said.
“In the midst of the engagement” with Hamas, Sen. Menendez sponsored a resolution with Senator Lindsey Graham (R.-S.C.) “to say that Israel has the right to defend itself.” He also wanted to provide Israel with the wherewithal to defend itself, “and that meant additional resources for Iron Dome.”
He led the way through his committee for the Senate’s unanimous approval of an $225 million package of emergency funding for Iron Dome to replenish the system’s missiles. “In the midst of what was a contentious period on other things, there was near unanimity on this,” he said. (There were eight votes in the House against the measure, which President Barack Obama signed in early August.)
American foreign policy is strongest “when it can be bipartisan,” Mr. Menendez said. “And it’s certainly strongest when we can speak with one voice, or as nearly as possible with one voice, as it relates to the U.S.-Israel relationship. I worked very hard as the chairman to maintain that bipartisanship, even when actors on either side want to shanghai the process and try to score political points.”
Still on the Senate’s agenda – it passed his committee but is awaiting a vote by the full Senate – is the U.S.-Israel Strategic Partnership Act of 2014. The act would declare Israel a strategic partner of the United States. It would increase cooperation between the two countries, and would take $13 million in funding allocated to aid Pakistan to fund U.S.-Israel cooperative projects further. And, most controversially, it would waive requirements that Israelis entering the United States receive a visa in advance.
“We’re having some problems with some of our Republican friends, particularly on the visa waiver provisions, so we’re trying to find some common ground,” he said. “Because I really do think it’s a critical time to make a statement like that.” He’s “hopeful” that the bill can be passed in the lame duck period.
But looming far larger in Menendez’ map of the Middle East and his concerns for Israel’s security is the threat of Iran getting nuclear weapons. He is proud to have been on the forefront of the issue more than 15 years ago, where he was serving on the House Foreign Relations Committee in the 1990s.
Then, the specific issue was American voluntary contributions to the International Atomic Energy Agency. It was at a time when the IAEA was financing “peaceful” development at Iranian nuclear facilities. These contributions beyond mandatory dues to the agency “were going to create operational capacities” at Iranian nuclear reactors, “against the national security interests of the United States,” Mr. Menendez said.
His effort to stop those contributions was successful. “That was the beginning of a many-year effort to focus on Iran,” he said.
In recent years, the question of Iranian nuclear capability has been at the top of the American diplomatic and political agenda. But before that, “I would say to my friends who care about national security – and certainly to the Jewish community – ‘Why are you talking to me about Hamas and the West Bank and other challenges? This is an existential threat to Israel and you need to pay attention to it.’
“Unfortunately, the world in general did not pay attention to it, and Iran continued to march forward in defiance of international positions.”
Now Iran is at the negotiating table, “and the only reason,” Mr. Mendendez believes, “is because of a series of sanctions I led with my colleague Sen. Mark Kirk of Illinois,” a Republican. Those, he said, “are some of the most biting sanctions we have ever leveled.”
In July, Iran and the six world powers it is negotiating with – the United States, Russia, China, Great Britain, France, and Germany – agreed to extend their talks until November 24. “I will be looking forward to see what agreements, if any, are reached, and if so to judge any agreement or any potential further extension by the parties,” he said.
He has a pending piece of legislation that would tighten sanctions on Iran further if the negotiators do not strike an agreement, “or if Iran violates the present framework that’s being negotiated.
“The purpose of that in my mind was to send Iran a very clear message of the consequences of not striking an agreement that we ultimately could all support,” he said. “Of course diplomacy is what we want to have success in, but it cannot be a deal for a deal’s sake. It must be a deal that verifiably ends Iran’s march toward nuclear weaponry. I have serious reservations as to whether they are willing to do what is necessary to actually achieve that.
“I will be judging any accord by the standards I have publicly set, by a whole host of different thresholds that will be important to be able to meet, in order to come to the conclusion that we have an agreement by which Iran cannot achieve nuclear weaponry.”
Senator Menendez said stopping Iran from getting nuclear weapons is “first and foremost” in the national and security interest of the United States. “Number one, a nuclear-armed Iran with the missile technology they have been developing could easily hit a European ally. Under Article Five of NATO, we are guaranteed to respond to a NATO ally.
“Secondly, we have a series of interests – both in our bases, our troops, and other interests within the region – that could be hit by an Iranian weapon.
“Thirdly, as I’ve traveled within the region, I’ve heard many countries say to me, ‘Senator, if Iran is allowed to have nuclear weapons, then under the theory of mutual destruction, I have to have nuclear weapons in order to defend my country. And the last thing we need is a nuclear arms race in a tinderbox of the world.'”
So while the threat of ISIS is something he is taking seriously, he strongly opposes any compromises on the nuclear issue to get Iranian cooperation against ISIS.
“The threat of a nuclear armed Iran from my perspective is much greater,” Mr. Menendez said.