by Eli Clifton
Tuesday’s announcement by Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) that he would vote against the Iran deal, making him the second Senate Democrat to oppose the White House’s signature foreign policy initiative, was a surprise to no one. Menendez had been an outspoken critic of the White House’s Iran diplomacy, even aligning himself with the controversial Mojahedin-e-Khalq, a fringe Iranian exile group that advocates regime change in Tehran.
But in recent months, Menendez has pursued one goal that probably requires more of his time and attention than the Iran nuclear deal, the needs of his constituents in New Jersey, or managing his relationship with the Senate’s Democratic caucus: staying out of federal prison.
Menendez is literally fighting for his freedom after being indicted in April on corruption charges. Mounting a legal defense hasn’t come cheap. By the second quarter of 2015, he raised over $2.8 million. And, as noted by a number of news outlets, many of those contributions came from hawkish pro-Israel donors.
Sheldon Adelson, the casino billionaire and GOP megadonor who advocated nuking Iran as a negotiating tactic, gave $10,000, the maximum legal contributions, to Menendez’s defense, as did his wife, Miriam. Hillary Clinton donor and fellow Iran deal opponent Haim Saban, and his wife Cheryl, each contributed $5,000. And billionaires Mortimer B. Zuckerman and Seth Klarman also gave $5,000.
Those figures don’t even begin to take into full account the funds directed to Menendez’s legal defense at the urging of AIPAC’s leadership.
In March, The New York Times reported that a quarter of the funds raised by the end of 2014 came from “political donors who have also given to pro-Israel political action committees.” The Times also said:
Mr. Menendez received enthusiastic applause addressing Aipac, the prominent Israel advocacy group, this month; its leaders have contributed to his legal defense fund and have privately pressed other Israel-oriented donors to do the same.
NorthJersey.com last month again reported on AIPAC leadership’s role in fundraising for Menendez’s legal defense
[Menendez’s] office said that some of the supporters who offered to help were active in AIPAC or other organizations and had longstanding relationships with him, but none came under the auspices of AIPAC.
AIPAC-connected contributors include David Steiner, a West Orange investor and former president of the group and current member of the Port Authority board of commissioners. He gave $10,000 to the defense fund and $20,700 to Menendez campaigns over the years, according to opensecrets.org.”
During his 2012 reelection campaign, Menendez received more pro-Israel campaign contributions than any other senator, also according to opensecrets.org.
Indeed, Israel played an important role in Menendez’s rejection of the nuclear agreement reached between the U.S., the P5+1 and Iran. Menendez seemed to suggest that U.S. policymakers should ensure that Israel can unilaterally attack Iran’s nuclear sites if it so wishes:
We should authorize now the means for Israel to address the Iranian threat on their own in the event that Iran accelerates its program and to counter Iranian perceptions that our own threat to use force is not credible.
Progressive advocacy groups harshly criticized Menendez’s rejection of the Iran deal .
“Menendez’s support for war over diplomacy isn’t surprising, but that doesn’t make it any less dangerous or irresponsible,” said Zack Malitz, CREDO Action’s campaign manager. “Is Senator Menendez so desperate to draw attention away from his indictment on corruption charges that he’s willing to help Republicans start another war of choice in the Middle East?”
MoveOn issued a statement saying:
“Senator Menendez may be adept at playing a war hawk, but he is a sorry excuse for a Democratic Senator. His pro-war position puts him far from the mainstream of the Democratic Party. The 135,000 MoveOn members in New Jersey will hold him accountable.”
Indeed, Menendez’s rejection of the White House’s Iran diplomacy doesn’t sound like the rhetoric one would expect from the senior senator of a state that reelected Barack Obama to the White House with a nearly 18% margin of victory. Menendez has explicitly denied that his opposition to the Iran deal was anything but an act of conscience. But the senator is probably counting on this opposition to help keep him out of prison.